What We're Willing to Live With

On Sunday, my husband and I had a home date. For reasons beyond my control, it featured red wine, fresh mozzarella with prosciutto, and sun dried tomatoes with basil and chopped almonds ... served on Goldfish crackers. It was very romantic, because my husband was super nice about the Goldfish crackers. Sometimes we do the whole “tablecloth, soft music and candlelight” bit, but we looked at each other and realized that we wanted nothing more than to zonk out in front of the TV for a while. So we watched Insomnia (2002), which is available for instant viewing on Netflix.

I didn’t zonk out! The movie was too good. And highly appropriate for Lent, since it’s all about self-examination and repentance, the different ways people deal with guilt, and how compromise damages the soul. This thriller is every bit as tense, tightly-paced, gorgeous and satisfying as a Hitchcock film, but with more sympathetic characters—and the casting and acting are impeccable. Al Pacino starts out doing his usual Al Pacino thing, but gradually something more emerges. (More sensitive viewers, take warning: it includes flashes of violence and skin.)

Here’s the basic plot, with no major spoilers: Two LA detectives travel to a small town in Alaska to help solve the murder of a teenage girl. Detective Dormer (Pacino) is enraged to discover that his partner plans to testify to Internal Affairs about his past, which threatens to undo all the good he has done. Chasing the murderer in the blinding mist, he accidentally shoots and kills his partner. What he does next is partly a function of the long habits of a practical man in an evil world—and, increasingly, a function of the growing pressure on his psyche. Because in the evocatively named town of Nightmute, the sun does not set, and Dormer cannot sleep.

I’ve seen dozens of movies about a conflicted soul, a complicated man who has made compromises in pursuit of the good. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that demands repentance and flat-out confession of his sins. It’s by no means an overtly religious movie, and can be enjoyed purely as a cinematic spectacle, if you wish. But, as in the Batman movies (also directed by Christopher Nolan), the images and ideas are utterly morally sound: Evil is evil, and must be repented of. I argued with myself as the plot unrolled: At one point, I was convinced that Dormer really was innocent and justified; and at another, I was persuaded that he really was as guilty as the murderer. And by the end, I was just longing for confession and relief. 

It turns out that his true nemesis is not the cold and banal murderer (an intensely creepy Robin Williams), who offers him endless choices, endless blundering in the mist. His choices never were truly in a gray area: He only wanted them to seem that way. The truth was always as black and white as the difference between stark daylight and never-ending night. His nemesis is himself.

It brought to mind the recent debates over lying for a good cause. Here is a man who had decided to do the wrong thing for the right reason, wanting mostly to protect the innocent and punish the guilty and dangerous (with some ego involved). And his lie wrought the immediate good, but also some long-term evil, which ultimately threatens the initial good. The film pulls off the neat trick of allowing Pacino to confess to the viewer, in the person of the innkeeper (Maura Tierny), who says, “I’m in no position to judge”—because she, like everyone in the audience, has sins in her past. 

And so we are put directly in the position to judge ourselves, and are invited to ask: Are we really so innocent as we claim? What were our motives, anyway? What do we really win when we compromise? And how much longer can we go on shielding ourselves, putting a fresh bandage over the seeping blood, trying to block out the inexorable light?

It is a carefully made movie. There are three slender, dark-haired women—the victim, the confidante and the protégé—who might signify Dormer’s past, present, and future, like the three fates.  Some other nice cinematic touches include a Lady Macbeth homage, as Dormer neurotically scrubs his bloodstained sleeve; and possibly a Paul-like conversion on the road to the lake house, when he hallucinates an oncoming truck, spins out, and only then becomes fully lucid. It is in the last moments of the movie that a man named “Dormer,” in an agony of insomnia, finally wakes up. It’s as if he’s been asleep his whole life, until that moment.

Lots to think about in this movie! Not for kids, but a tense and rewarding ride for adults. For more details, here is Steven Greydanus’ review at Decent Films.

Have you seen this movie? What do you think? Any other recommendations for Lent?