Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 2002: Robin Williams in Insomnia

Robin Williams did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Walter Finch in Insomnia.

Insomnia is about a homicide detective under investigation by internal affairs Will Dormer (Al Pacino) who is sent to Alaska to investigate the murder of a local teen while he plagued by guilt and the inability to sleep due to the midnight sun. It's an effective thriller even though it unfortunately has Hillary Swank in it who should only be cast in very rare circumstances. 

In 2002 Robin Williams rejected his standard on screen persona with his startling but sympathetic turn in One Hour Photo and in Insomnia. Williams again is playing against his usual type once again, and like One Hour Photo he does not even give a hint of his comedic work. As with many films where the killer is a mystery at least at first, and a famous actor has yet to make his appearance it is fairly safe to assume that he is going to be the killer. Insomnia actually pretty much takes this as a given as the first we even know of Williams it is hearing his voice revealing that he is the killer to Pacino's character. This actually is a pretty interesting way to introduce the character that might have not worked if it wasn't Williams's familiar voice over the phone.

Even though it is only his voice Williams makes a strong impact to begin with with his eerily calm delivery as he speaks. Finch isn't calling Dormer to turn himself in nor is he calling in the often used villain calling the hero routine but rather to make a deal as Finch was a witness to Dormer shooting and killing his partner. William's performance is very interesting in that even his voice is strangely calm there is nothing overtly evil about it either. He finds such startling tone for just his manner in which Finch talks that instantly makes him a fascinating character before we have even met him as Williams opens up with a mystery of this man only leaving us to what to know exactly what is behind the man who speaks in such a gentle way about his murder.

When Dormer finally meets Finch face to face Williams does not disappoint. His Finch is very different from his Sy in One Hour Photo even though it might seem like Williams might tread a little water in his performance but he does not. As Finch there is not anything that would make you instantly pinpoint him as a murderer at least in his style. He is again technically a lonely man, but in this case a very different sort of lonely man. Unlike in his leading work from this year Williams portrays the man who is all alone with a great degree of contentment most of the time. Williams doesn't make Finch seem desperate in any way, and part of what makes this performance so effective is that Williams does not plays Finch as the aggressive killer instead creates a more complex portrait.

When Finch lays out his plans to Dormer which involve framing somewhat else for the murder there is something so strange yet absolutely brilliant about Williams's performance. Everything that Finch lays out he words so nicely and puts it together like a set of plot points they both need to follow to make sure that they both escape any judgment. Why this is brilliant is that Finch himself is a mystery writer and Williams does two things by taking this approach. Firstly he shows that Finch has a certain ego in his writing so much that he will even keep using the writer's lingo and keep a distance even though he is the killer. Secondly though he suggests the way Finch has become since the murder and although it is his very first and now that he can view himself away from it that he could very easily become a serial killer due to his changed nature.

A particularly interesting thing that Williams does here is dominate his scenes with Pacino even though Dormer is the far more volatile one of the two. What Williams does though is basically create the dominance through an odd complacency. As they set up the plan Finch always urges on Dormer one way or another to follow his plan exactly. Williams does this with this odd charisma as even when he is insulted he barely bats an eye always gently pushing his ideas over Dormer's objections. There is also something else there as Finch consistently praises Dormer and his profession as well as trying to convince Dormer to go along with him as a way to do the right thing. Williams is amazing because it is impossible to tell whether he is being genuine in this praise and it comes off as just the easiest way for Finch to control Dormer all the more.

Williams's very best scene is when he tells Dormer about what exactly happened when he killed the girl. Williams lets go ever so slightly of the writer making his own story in this scene, although only ever so slightly. It is a very strange scene but testament to how good Williams is here as he makes you actually sympathize with Finch even though all he is doing is admitting he killed the girl. Again there is something else though as Williams brings just the smallest hint of a seething emotion under neath Finch's almost cherub like smile, and lets onto to where the extreme hatred came from that came when he killed the girl. This scene is incredible moment for Williams because even as he makes Finch seem like a man who did kill by accident what he actually is doing at the same time is showing how Finch is truly reprehensible as he has become a man who can completely rationalize his brutal murder. 

I think Robin Williams probably should contractually obligated to play a potential psychopath as he quite good at it, and it is quite an achievement that he doesn't repeat himself at all in his two portrayals of that sort from 2002. Williams pretty much makes every move you would not expect from Robin Williams playing a psychopathic murderer. In that he downplays everything evil about his character even though it is something that always within his characterization nevertheless. One of my favorite scenes that I think sums up the effectiveness of Williams's performance is late in the film as he and Dormer seem to have fixed everything up just right for themselves. Finch once again plays the nice man saying everything Dormer did was the right thing to do, and Williams is able to be honest with this sentiment even while he actually is not. That dynamic though makes Walter Finch such a chilling character though when he says that he will wrap everything up. Williams in his face gives the face of a man just giving a little bit of comfort, but in his eyes he is man who leaves the possibility that this wrap up probably will mean at least writing just one more murder in to end his story.


koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Glad you loved this performance as much as I did. Easily my favorite performance from him.

Anonymous said...

Are you a fan of Christopher Nolan in general, Louis? Also, you mention Hilary Swank with derision but I have to imagine you liked her in Boys Don't Cry, right?

Louis Morgan said...

To answer the first question yes.

To answer the second there is a reason I wrote "in very rare circumstances".

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Sort of off topic, but has anyone seen The Good Girl from 2002? I seem to be one of the few who was deeply affected by it.

Psifonian said...

Looks like Hill's got competition.

I found myself rather detached from this performance. It's a good one, effective, ably aided by Nolan's atmospheric work in the film... but my problem with Williams's dramatic work has always been that he's not allowed to let loose like he does with his comedy, so he can't patch up the flaws in the surrounding film as efficiently. He's not bad by any means, but he deserved to be in better films. It's the same thing with Denzel Washington. I find him to be a good actor in films that are largely flawed, and he can only take the material so far before it hinders him.