Anyone who has ever traveled from one continent to another will know how difficult it is for the body to readjust to the new time zone. Someone may go days before their internal time clock catches up.

That’s what happens to distinguished Los Angeles homicide detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) when he and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are assigned to investigate the homicide of a 17-year-old girl in the small town of Nightmute, Alaska. Even before the plane touches down, Dormer seems restless.

He claims that the trip is a favor for an old friend, but Eckhart knows that it conveniently puts them out of reach of an on-going Internal Affairs investigation. Dormer is so disoriented that he forgets he’s in the land of the midnight sun.

Constant daylight takes its toll on Dormer, who begins to struggle with “Insomnia,” a condition that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Based on the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name, “Insomnia” is one of those rare foreign remakes that is not only as good as the original, but in many ways, is much better.

“Insomnia” is director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his skillfully crafted “Memento.” What a relief to learn that Nolan isn’t just a great director, he’s a consistently great director. “Insomnia” is by far the best film of this year so far, a complex, literate, fine-tuned and perfectly cast cat-and- mouse thriller.

Most crime thrillers rely on darkness and shadows to create mood and suspense. Nolan doesn’t have that advantage, and yet every frame of “Insomnia” is filled with unbearable apprehension. Writer Hilary Seitz, making her debut, manages to stay faithful to the spirit of the original film while adding welcome layers to the character’s development.

Those layers are slowly peeled away by a dream cast headed by Pacino as the tormented Dormer, Robin Williams as his chief suspect, and Hilary Swank as the small town cop developing big city instincts. All three are Oscar winners, but their performances here rank among their best. They are blessed to have such a gifted director like Nolan behind the camera, someone who understands the connection between actor and director.

Most directors would be intimidated working with the likes of Pacino and Williams, yet Nolan’s respect for their talents allows the actors to dig deep and come up with performances that are more than the written word. Every character is so vividly realized that we forget we’re watching a movie.

Especially pleasing is the way Seitz introduces character exposition without insulting the audience. Seitz introduces the subplot about the Internal Affairs investigation, but takes her time unraveling the details. Like with “Memento,” this is where director Nolan excels, feeding us little pieces of the puzzle until we find ourselves caught in the same web as the characters.

We don’t even meet suspected killer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) until the half-way mark, but the character is so powerful (and powerfully portrayed by Williams in a change of pace role) that we never forget him. Williams turns the supposedly mild-mannered crime novelist into a creepy creation that blends cunning and malice.

Pacino is exceptional as Dormer, looking like a man who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. With Pacino’s every distant stare, you can feel his inner turmoil and anxiety. Every line in his face suggests a man who has had a tough life. Dark circles hang under his eyes like storm clouds.

Even before they meet, Dormer knows who Finch is because behind their distinctive facades, both men share the same moral ambiguity. When Dormer is forced into an awkward alliance with Finch, he doesn’t see it as making a deal with the devil but as a way of surviving.

Swank is appealing as Ellie Burr, the small town cop who worships Dormer and has studied every one of his cases. Every line in “Insomnia” has purpose, and even the smaller roles have been cast with familiar faces to give them impact.

Maura Tierney is perfect as the multi-purpose hotel manager who serves as Dormer’s conscience, while Martin Donovan, Paul Dooley and Nicky Katt lend prominent support as various law enforcement officials.

Nolan, director of photography Wally Pfister, and the sound editors do an amazing job of drawing us into Dormer’s slow slide into insanity. Nolan uses distracting directional noise to make us feel disoriented, while Pfister keeps his camera up close and personal, creating the illusion of claustrophobia even though the action takes place in broad daylight and wide open spaces.

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Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams, Maura Tierney, Nicky Katt, Martin Donovan, Paul Dooley. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated R. 118 Minutes.


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