Friday, August 8, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 8/8/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.


With the breakaway success of the Batman megahit The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan is finally getting the name recognition he deserves. Nolan has garnered respect over the past decade for his critically acclaimed work on movies such as Memento, The Prestige, and, of course, Batman Begins. However, Nolan also directed a gem of a psychological thriller in 2002 that went largely unnoticed – Insomnia, a brilliantly woven masterpiece about a morally conflicted detective set against the harsh backdrop of Alaska’s midnight sun. If you’ve enjoyed Nolan’s other work but missed Insomnia, now might be a great time to check it out.

Al Pacino stars as Will Dormer, a top-tier L.A. detective who heads to the tiny coastal town of Nightmute, Alaska to consult with the local police about the murder of a teenage girl that has paralyzed the small town. Dormer and his longtime L.A. partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are paired with local rookie detective Elle Burr (Hilary Swank) with the task of catching the killer. Dormer comes up with a clever ploy to lure the killer (Robin Williams) back to the scene of the crime, but the bust goes bad when the man spots the cops, leading them on a chase into a fog bank where events transpire that turn the characters’ lives upside down.

I’m going to intentionally avoid giving away too much plot, since much of the movie’s strength lies in the story being much deeper than originally anticipated. What begins as a simple cop-vs.-killer story quickly evolves into a portrait of a man tortured by his conscience with no answers in sight. Nolan has a knack unlike any other modern director for exploring the darker side of humanity in a way that’s never exploitative but grounded in simple, relatable realities. This is a fantastic character drama, and the cast is a big reason why. Nolan is a pro at getting the most from his actors, and he certainly does here. Robin Williams is fantastic in his debut turn to the dark side (delivering a performance on par with 2002’s One Hour Photo but in a far superior film), portraying a quiet menace close enough to normal to be entirely unsettling. Swank does well as the film’s moral compass and solid supporting jobs are turned in by Maura Tierney and Paul Dooley, but ultimately this is Pacino’s film. He plays a man on the edge (if not over it) with his usual panache without falling prey to the overeager caricature of himself that has shown up from time to time. His Will Dormer is a man in extreme circumstances, but a man of relatable character, connecting to the audience with ease.

The setting is almost a character in its own right. Cinematographer Wally Pfister does a fantastic job of capturing the pressure brought on by a land where the sun never sets, giving us a torturous picture of the psychological realities on display in the movie. Nolan has an incredible talent for making movies with great moral weight without ever making the audience feel like he’s beating us over the head. This film’s no different, as the implications of the characters’ choices will leave you thinking long after the credits finish rolling. But much like The Dark Knight, the ethical questions are explored in the context of an incredibly engrossing narrative that cements Christopher Nolan as one of the premier filmmakers of this generation. - **** (out of 4)

Insomnia is rated R for language, some violence and brief nudity.

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