Gen X Review InsomniaTerror is knowing the guy standing next to you at McDonalds may have a human head in his refrigerator, love the sound of flesh being ripped or may have simply bludgeoned his lover to death over who controls the remote control. The real monster isn’t the dead thing crawling out of its grave, but the average guy letting his personal demons control his actions.

These are the things that keep sane people awake into the wee hours of the night.
The superb new film Insomnia plays on these fears, creating a world where madness, violence and crime are just another suburb of the ordinary. It’s pretty easy to lose track of your moral high ground in the early hours between morning and midnight, when dreams and reality seem to bleed into one another.

Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is not ready for the extreme experiences that await him when he is sent to a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a 17-year-old girl. Alaska doesn’t look much like the Heart of Darkness, but Dormer isn’t prepared for the ambiguity of this environment, where perpetual summer daylight makes it impossible to even determine the time of day.

When his partner is killed in the line of duty -- sort of -- Dormer confronts a murderer who seems to know too much. Walter Finch (Robin Williams) tells him that he understands the pressures of being hunted and sympathizes with the detective, who faces an internal investigation in Los Angeles. Finch blackmails Dormer into helping him, but the subtle manipulations between these two characters make it difficult to understand who is using whom.

The relationship between cop and criminal is complex, especially at the highest level of development. The genius detective is actually more closely aligned to the master criminal than the average citizen. Just as some firefighters invariably become pyromaniacs, members of the law enforcement sometimes lose track of the moral code that binds them and begin seeing only the challenge of investigation.

The cop has to think like the criminal in order to understand his next move. This means envisioning a world where murder is justifiable and Dormer is close to accepting Finch’s moral relativism. He didn’t mean to murder the girl, Finch says, it was an accident and it could have happened to anyone. And, really, Finch isn’t alien evil personified, isn’t a Hannibal Lector genius with inhuman tastes or a Jason killing machine bred to dismember promiscuous teenagers -- he’s a regular guy just like Dormer.

He’s absolutely ordinary all right, except he has beaten a young girl to death. For Dormer murder is pretty mundane and banal, and most violent crimes are committed by people just like you or I -- pushed, led, or compelled to do monstrous things.

Metaphorically, Alaska is the moral twilight for Dormer. Day and night have no meaning in this world, where a sickly pale light makes time irrelevant. Distinctions are as vague as cloudy outlines of the ocean under a blanket of fog and Dormer’s sense of right vacillates uncomfortably. Should he let his conscious lapse and allow this one crime to slide in order to keep his other cases secure, or should he do the right thing and sacrifice the past in favor of the morally responsible decision today?

Alaska is a kind of purgatory for the hot-shot city detective, a chance to redeem or lose his soul. His reputation is on the line and Finch repeatedly tells him that his life’s work is worth more than this one case. However, if Finch is correct -- that Dormer’s past is more important than his present -- than justice doesn’t really signify much. It is just doing the most morally responsible thing possible at any given time.

Pacino gives a powerful performance as a man struggling to discover his own ethical backbone. Although fatigued and anxious, Dormer has a kind a shrewd understanding of the meaning of crime. He is a man who has seen too much ugliness, pain and violence to believe in the inherent good of man, but lives by a higher code of honor himself.

It’s too bad that Williams doesn’t get more screen time, because he brings an interesting ambivalence to his role: Is Finch playing Dormer or does he believe in what he’s saying?  He is a complex version of the everyman, a chilling reminder of what happens when ordinary people permit themselves to cross moral boundaries and do the unthinkable.

Insomnia a clever, stylish journey into madness. Just remember to bring your own moral compass and stay close to those you trust.


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