'Insomnia' keeps you wide awake

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Al Pacino may portray a sleep-deprived cop in "Insomnia," a startlingly good thriller wrapped around a morality tale, but he's hardly sleepwalking his way through the role. The actor, often prone to performing with manic gestures, excessive blustering, and barked lines, hasn't been this subtle and effective in years.

"Insomnia," a remake of a 1997 Norwegian movie of the same name, is set in Alaska's foreboding glacial forests. But it would be a misnomer to say that Pacino is in new territory. After all, he plays a cop – the only role he's played more often is that of a mafioso.

This time out, he's a member of a Los Angeles homicide team under investigation by internal affairs. An opportunity to accompany his partner to Nightmute, Alaska, to solve the murder of a teenage girl seems to be an ideal respite.

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But it's there that he commits a mistake so fatal that he weaves an elaborate web of deceit to conceal it. Worse, the killer he's looking for, played by Robin Williams, is on to his secret.

Plagued by his conscience, taunting phone calls from the killer, and the glare of a midnight sun that doesn't set in summer, the flawed hero finds sleep impossible. Pacino exquisitely chronicles the unraveling of the increasingly weary cop trying to outwit the murderer. He's ably supported, too, by a tight script and a chillingly effective foil in the form of Williams. It's a credit to director Christopher Nolan – who made last year's unforgettable "Memento" – that he's able to elicit fresh, exciting performances from one actor best known for family movies and another renowned for making movies about "the family."

Refreshingly, Nolan is also more interested in psychology than chase scenes (though the film boasts deft set pieces, too). "Insomnia" is filmmaking that's wide awake and morally alert.

• Rated R; contains violence, profanity, and brief nudity.

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