Detective Will Dormer is a decorated LAPD investigator who isn’t easily rattled. When he and his partner, Hap Eckhart, fly to a small Alaskan town to assist local police with the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl, he expects a routine case. He doesn’t get what he expects. To begin with, he can’t sleep because of the perpetual light in the Land of the Midnight Sun. And the LAPD’s Internal Affairs (IA) department has discovered that Hap took bribes from drug dealers. Dormer knows that if Hap confesses, IA will soon come knocking on his door. Dormer might be a heroic cop, but he’s not perfect and if IA turns over too many stones, they’ll be able to prove it.
A stakeout of the murder scene (a shack) quickly turns ugly as the suspect, novelist Walter Finch, strides in two steps ahead of a heavy bank of fog. Through the mist, gunshots are exchanged and an easy arrest turns into a half-blind cat-and-mouse game. Dormer fires at a form in the gloom and hits … Hap. Dormer lies to cover up the shooting, insisting that Finch came up from the river and shot Hap—or was it from the tree line? Between Dormer and exoneration are the sharp eyes of Ellie Burr, an intelligent, yet naive local cop who worships the LA veteran but begins to suspect something’s up. Then, just when Dormer thinks he has all of the loose ends tied, he gets a 4 a.m. phone call. “I saw.” It’s Finch. “I saw you shoot your partner. We’re partners on this.” But if Finch could recognize Hap in the fog, doesn’t that mean Dormer could too? Burr isn’t the only one with questions now.
positive elements: Director Christopher Nolan sets up an excellent contrast between Dormer and Ellie to illustrate issues of justice, integrity, corruption and guilt. Dormer is cocky, confident, savvy and Alpha male all the way. Ellie is tentative, green and an eager beaver, far too ready to please her idol. When Hap is killed (or murdered?), audiences see another side of Dormer: a man who will do anything to save his skin. A simple lie about Hap’s death quickly spirals into fraud and forgery until he finds himself bargaining with Finch, trying to find a fall guy for the girl’s murder so that Finch won’t blackmail him. Ellie, on the other hand, is assigned to investigate Hap’s shooting. And while she’s completely convinced that Dormer’s story is true, she does the leg work anyway, going over and over the scene, corroborating witnesses and asking the detective tough questions.
While the film teeters on a knife’s edge up until the final moments (Dormer desperately wants “the end to justify the means”), a strong conclusion is reached in regard to ethical and moral judgments. Even Finch proffers tidbits of positive advice when he tells Dormer, “You don’t get to pick when you tell the truth.”
nudity and sexual content: Audiences briefly see the murder victim naked on an autopsy table and in crime scene photographs. Cops and suspects talk about how the victim was sleeping with her boyfriend and that she broke up with him because he began having sex with her best friend. That friend unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Dormer when questioned. Some squirm-inducing conversation transpires about sexualized homicide and child molestation. An Alaskan police officer cracks a crude joke about oral sex. Another makes an obscene gesture after Ellie urges him to be more thorough at a crime scene. Ellie squeezes Dormer’s rear while hugging him (she may feeling for a gun).
violent content: Extreme close-up shots linger on the victim’s bruised and battered body. Quick flashbacks, some almost subliminal in length, show her being beaten and her corpse cleaned by Finch. Dormer retrieves a slug from Finch’s gun by firing it into an already dead dog and digging the bullet out with his penknife. Dormer and Finch chase each other across a churning log floe (the detective is almost crushed when he falls into the water). One character is knocked unconscious. Another is brutally beaten. Two people die from point-blank gunshot wounds.
crude or profane language: Nearly every character in Insomnia—from major to minor and in between—uses the f-word (around 40 uses in all, some sexual). The s-word crops up about 15 times along with approximately 10 other milder profanities. God and Jesus’ names are abused about a half-dozen times. A handful of crudities include sexual references.
drug and alcohol content: Two teens smoke. The cops have a round of drinks at the bar after “solving” the murder.
conclusion: Amazing. Intense. Profane. Insomnia is all of these things. There’s a reason why The New York Post calls the movie “a four-course gourmet alternative to summer popcorn flicks.” The only problem is that this feast of a film offers as many rancid courses as it does tasty ones. No doubt about it, Insomnia is simultaneously a dark and stylishly compelling film, utilizing unique camera angles, aggressive cinematography and excellent acting. Its ultimate theme is that the end certainly doesn’t justify the means—but it takes a long time to get there. Moviegoers could become more fascinated with the film’s macabre window dressing than its ethical conundrums.