Al Pacino battles ‘Insomnia’ on HBO Now

Al Pacino in Christopher Nolan's 'Insomnia' (2002), the American remake of the Norwegian thriller.

Between his breakthrough hit Memento and his blockbuster smash Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan helmed Insomnia (2002), the American remake of the icy, sun-bright 1997 Norwegian noir. Relocated to Alaska and starring Al Pacino in the role played by Stellan Skarsgård in the original, it’s built on the same motif: the 24 hour daylight of the Arctic summer as the unblinking light of truth.

Pacino plays L.A. cop Will Dormer, who arrives gaunt, tired and sleepy-eyed to a quiet Alaskan village to investigate a murder. He’s under investigation back home and the assignment is an escape of sorts, but guilt follows him north and his eyes just get blearier and more hollowed out as he’s kept awake by the rays blasting through his hotel window, a visual scream that burns through to his conscience.

Nolan shifts the moral ground from the snowballing moral corruption of the original to shades of guilt and accountability and Pacino’s increasingly bleary and hallucinatory perspective becomes an evocative metaphor for his struggle.

Robin Williams is unexpectedly chilling as the self-pitying suspect who blackmails Dormer with damning evidence (his explanations and justifications make him all the more unsettling and creepy). Hilary Swank has a more thankless role as a hero-worshipping rookie investigator on hand largely to play angel to William’s devil, but she pulls it off and Martin Donovan is Dormer’s doomed partner.

Don’t expect a nail-biter: the moody style creates action scenes more evocative and entrancing than adrenaline pumping, but it features evocative imagery, a compelling story, and one of Pacino’s best performances of the 21st century.

Watch it on HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO On Demand

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About Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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