Pacino the great

In Insomnia, Al Pacino plays Los Angeles detective Will Dormer, who has to solve the murder of a schoolgirl in the jagged wastes of the Alaskan summer, where the sun doesn’t set. He starts off looking exhausted and it only gets worse.

Soon he inadvertently commits a crime by omitting to declare it. Problem is, the killer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) saw what he did, and the admiring local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) takes his advice and sticks to details like her surname. Soon she’s investigating the man she idolises, if not envies.

Williams as the killer doesn’t quite work but is fascinating, because he has to strain against his considerable reputation as a joker and the deflated mystique of the psychopath as Hollywood star. He is introduced to us as the killer early on and without any particular fanfare.

Apart from killing an admiring girl (echoing Burr’s endeavours) in a moment of elemental rage, Finch is, of all things, a mediocre thriller writer. The point that his — and possibly all men’s — pathology has to do with a deep fear and loathing of women is quite clearly made.

But worse than becoming worse his personality is petrified from the start, like the surrounding black mountains that are usually covered in ice. That does not, in all fairness, give Williams much to work with.

Swank, too, in her masculine uniform, has a hard time of it, because she has to act in miniature. But her rather sexless character’s growing disappointment in Dormer is subtle and memorable, as is her gradual feminisation.

Directed by the relatively young Christopher Nolan (32), who has already distinguished himself with the impressive Memento, Pacino takes us through his week of de-creation, obsessed with blocking out the light of his hotel room, his professional and moral self-loathing, his life.

That obsession — Nolan’s is to always introduce his main characters by showing what their hands do; in this case a kind of Lady Macbeth in reverse — leads to the moving conclusion about what separates the Dormers from the Finches of this world. Finally, if this intelligent thriller has its faults they are subsumed by Pacino’s performance, which ranges from a haunted Nosferatu to a modern-day King Lear. It is a work of true genius.

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