**1/2 (out of four)
By Daniel Kraus

There’s very little to get excited about in Insomnia, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad movie. It’s the new flick from director Christopher Nolan (Memento), and it’s a big studio thriller starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. Film critics have gone off the deep end with their praise of this movie, hailing it as some sort of new breed of thriller and a sure bet for Oscar gold.

But I think that Insomnia has tricked people. It’s NOT particularly original and it’s NOT very thrilling. That’s because, despite all the claims to the contrary, it is simply not a "thriller," and has used that genre title to mislead people, making them think they’re seeing something really unique when in truth Insomnia is simply an entry in an entirely different genre. It’s what I like to call the "Downward Moral Spiral" genre, and involves a basically good character making a bad moral choice that leads to the destruction of everything he or she has ever worked for. (For another good example, see A Simple Plan.)

Detective Will Dormer (Pacino) is sent to the tiny hamlet of Nightmute, Alaska to uncover the murderer of a teen girl. During pursuit, Pacino accidentally kills someone on his own team. The murderer, Walter Finch (Williams), witnesses Dormer’s mistake. This presents a dilemma —only by working with Finch can Dormer erase the evidence of his own sin. Dormer attempts to have his cake and eat it too by tampering with evidence in order to frame Finch, but he only succeeds in worsening his own situation. Dormer’s life is further complicated by that fact that the sun never sets in Nightmute, and he has not slept in days.

The movie is good in a simple, blunt way that makes everything look easy—there’s no embarrassing dialogue, preposterous stunts, or idiotic romance thrown in just for the hell of it. And because there’s no mystery (it’s no secret that Finch is the killer), Insomnia gives us permission to relax our brains, sit back for two hours, and watch a man’s life unravel.

Insomnia relies almost entirely on the actors. In what is little more than an extended cameo, Williams gives a somewhat dull performance that is so quiet and tight-lipped that, on occasion, he even manages to make Pacino tone it down a little bit. For the most part, Pacino is at his Pacino-est, raging with his repertoire of unpredictable vocal stylings, bizarre start-and-stop rhythms, and downright scary volume changes. Am I the only one who notices that Pacino has turned into a rich man’s William Shatner?

Shatner qualities notwithstanding, Pacino is enjoyable and his sagging, jowly face already looks pretty sleep-deprived. As Dormer grows increasingly fatigued, things take on a slightly surreal quality—he sees things that aren’t really there and hears things much more selectively. These sound and visual effects work almost too well—the last half of Insomnia makes you want to curl up and take a nap.

Nolan fully utilizes the Alaskan terrain to turn the mental state of his protagonist into something physical. There’s a deserted, isolated look to the movie that matches Dormer’s own increasing isolation. Pursuit scenes are given new vitality when we are forced to watch Dormer give chase over dangerous crags of rock and floating logs bobbing in and out of the icy water. The one potential missed opportunity is that Insomnia is not as sun-drenched as it could have been. As classics like Jaws, North by Northwest, and Last House on the Left have shown us, there’s nothing scarier than sunlit horrors, spread out in the daylight, naked and inescapable.

Rarely do movies so aggressively heap misfortune and misjudgment upon their central characters. Dormer is easy to respond to because he is doomed. We can see the hard moral lessons coming from a mile away, bearing down on Dormer like a freight train, and there is nothing we can do or say to warn him. It is filmmaking that is easy to admire but not so easy to love, for it is a straight shot down the moral slide, with little hope along the way for a climb back up.