Friday, July 20, 2012

My Favorite Scene: Insomnia

Warning: Critical plot details will be divulged in this post. Certain aspects of the ending will be spoiled.

The thing I love most about Insomnia are those ingenious quick cuts. Several times throughout Christopher Nolan’s shifty, perfect crime thriller, rapid editing is implored to demonstrate frustration, confusion, and general lack of coherence in the film’s main character, Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino). Because Dormer is plagued with a wicked bout of the titular affliction, his subconscious slowly eats away at him, making all his life troubles that much harder to solve.

But let me back up. Will Dormer and his partner, both veteran LAPD detectives, fly to a small Alaskan town to help solve the murder of a teenage girl. As soon as Dormer arrives, he finds himself unable to adjust to the town’s current 24-hour daylight cycle. And, at the risk of breezing over details, by the end of the film, Dormer is caught in a devilish game of cat and mouse with the girl’s killer (Robin Williams). The killer has dirt on the cop, and, because of this, the cop spends the movie trying to figure out what his best hand is.

Now, throughout the film, Nolan and his editor Dody Dorn effectively use quick editing to evoke Dormer’s mood. Often, the cuts are a series of jump cuts led by sound, meaning, we hear the sound of the action before we actually cut. But there’s something else going on here too.
From one of the very first shots of the film, we see what we think is a figure standing over… something, scrubbing dutifully at… something. Who or what or where or why is completely unknown. And honestly, we’d forget the image were it not for Nolan’s perfectly timed reminders. Most of the hazy images are accompanied by a quick shot of what we finally realize is blood soaking through white fabric.

It is the explanation of this haunting image that paves way for the film’s best scene.

Toward the end of the movie, Dormer trashes his hotel room in an effort to curtain the light pouring in. He throws shit around, tapes the blinds shut – anything for the peace of darkness. The hotel worker, Rachel, (played by Maura Tierney, who’s never given the credit she deserves), knocks on the door to inform him that he’s being too loud. After a brief discussion, she enters the room and that’s when Dormer lets it out. For whatever reason, he decides that this time, right now, is when he’s going to reveal his biggest secret.
Barely able to sit up straight, Dormer tells Rachel about Wayne Dobbs, a sick bastard who kidnapped, molested and murdered an 8-year-old boy. Dormer says from the second he saw Dobbs, he knew he was guilty. Problem was, there wasn’t enough evidence. So, knowing Dobbs to be guilty, Dormer planted some of the boy’s blood in the suspect’s apartment. This is where the hazy flashbacks come full circle, and it is here that Nolan provides us with the film’s most startling image.

We jump cut to Dormer planting the blood, and upon accidently getting a drop of blood on his own shirt cuff, we flash to Dormer’s fresh, well-slept face. His eyes dart up, and he waits. “I could feel it right there,” Dormer tells Rachel. “This is gonna catch up with me.”
Part of the reason I’m so taken with this scene is because it marks the last truly great monologue we’ve heard from Al Pacino. There he is, this cinema icon, halfway to dead, nearly unable to prop himself up on a shitty Alaskan hotel room bed. His face, voice, mannerisms – the man is fucking tired. It’s as fine an acting job as old Pacino has delivered.

The other reason I love the scene is the appropriate way Tierney answers Pacino’s request to verbally judge his misdeeds.

“Why don’t you tell me what you think? Here, now, in this room, you and me… please,” Pacino says with perfect desperation.

Tierney looks at him warmly, and, hell, I could tell you what she says back to him, but I don’t want to ruin every surprise.

Previous installments of My Favorite Scene include:

The Week of Nolan:
Monday July 16

Tuesday July 17

Wednesday July 18

Thursday July 19

Friday July 20
My Favorite Scene: Insomnia

Saturday July 21
Review of The Dark Knight Rises

Sunday July 22
Why You Need to Follow Following


  1. Great post man. Just re-watched this and loved it. I'd easily upgrade it to an A. This is the first scene that came to my mind, but I also love the scene on the ferry between Dormer and Finch. To see Pacino and Williams going toe-to-toe is just awesome. I can't argue with this choice though, or with your thoughts on Pacino's and Tierney's performances.

    1. Dude, I was this close to putting that ferry scene here. The way Williams reacts to Pacino telling him he'll be brought in for questioning, it's like a kid hearing he's getting a puppy for Christmas. It's the best scene of Robin Williams' career, in my opinion.

      But in the end, it was old Pacino that hooked me. His career has taken such a needless nose dive, and this scene is just so heartbreaking, for a number of reasons.

  2. That is a great scene. It's a real surprise considering how troubled Dormer's character is and all because he wanted to catch someone he knew was guilty. He's a man that knows that's done wrong and isn't sure if he could be redeemed. Yet, the ending I think does redeem him because of what he tries to tell Ellie what to do about herself as a good cop.

    It's Pacino at his best in a decade where he had few moments to display that talent.

    1. I agree, Pacino at his best when he didn't have much best to give. Truly great insight (as always) on this scene here. You know your shit, man.

  3. It is a great scene. I really loved the connection Nolan made showing as that soaked cloth in the beginning and then revealing what that was about so many scenes later. I wish Pacino delivered work as this one nowadays, his recent films are just horrible.

    1. Horrible indeed, and that is such a shame. Glad to hear you like this scene for the same exact reasons I do!

  4. It's the saddest fucking thing. The music is amazing. He's carried this thing around for so long and it's ruined his whole life. It's so sad. Jesus

  5. You missed something. The music. It is sublime.