Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a veteran detective of the Los Angeles Police Department, and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are called to Nightmute, Alaska, to help the local police chief (Paul Dooley) handle the case of a brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl. It's the biggest thing that has happened for a long time in this small community, known for being the halibut fishing capital of the world and for having 24 hours a day of sunlight in the summer.
Dormer is famous for his keen investigative skills and his attention to the details of a crime. He's a legend already and is considered to be a good cop, but he's worried about his legacy. His partner is under pressure from Internal Affairs back in Los Angeles and is planning to make a deal that will, presumably, reveal improprieties in Dormer's activities on one controversial case.
The arrival of the detective is greeted with great enthusiasm by Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a local officer who has kept up with all of his triumphs. But in the land of the Midnight Sun, Dormer seems to off his game, suffering from the effects of insomnia. After grilling Kate's violent boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson), Dormer realizes he is not the killer. Searching the girl's room, he decides she must have had a secret admirer, an older man who gave her some expensive gifts. The police decide to trap the man by suggesting the victim left behind some evidence. Staking out a cabin in the wilderness, they give chase to a suspect through the woods in a dense fog. Unable to see clearly, Dormer shoots at a figure nearby, who turns out to be his partner. With his dying words, Hap accuses him of shooting him on purpose to avoid the IA investigation. The veteran detective decides to lie about the incident.
But the murder suspect has witnessed the shooting and shortly afterwards calls Dormer, eager to play a cat-and-mouse game with him. Walter Finch (Robin Williams) is a local mystery writer; he and the girl had a mutual admiration society. She loved his books, and he was flattered by her attention. Now Finch tries to convince Dormer that they are cut from the same morally ambiguous cloth.
The suspenseful and psychologically rich screenplay by Hillary Seitz is loosely based on a 1997 Norwegian film. Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento) has done an incredible job bringing this moral thriller to the screen. The riveting drama examines the slippery slope encountered by those who cross over the line and exceed the norms of what is professionally and morally correct. Do the ends justify the means? Are there degrees of moral transgression or does one size fit all?
Dormer tries to figure out these dilemmas while he is disoriented from sleep deprivation and his conscience is screaming at the top of its lungs. In a very poignant scene, he is chasing Finch across a river filled with logs; he falls between the logs and then can't get to the surface; he's literally drowning in a situation he can't control.
Two other motifs common in the world's wisdom traditions surface in the film. The first is the importance of little details. In life and in criminal investigations the small stuff does really matter. Here is where character is defined and the future is chosen.
The second is the importance of dealing with the shadow side. Dormer's unsettling relationship with Finch grows more terrifying as the drama hurtles its way to a conclusion. We sense that before it is over, the detective is going to have to face his shadow, including the aspects of himself he sees reflected in Finch.
Another character, the novice cop Ellie also has to deal with her shadow, in her case the "golden" shadow of idealism, innocence, and strength she has projected on the man she so admires. Hilary Swank is excellent as this young officer who is not so starstruck that she can't do the right thing.
This is a complex and thought-provoking film that revolves around Al Pacino's stellar performance as Dormer. He has played anxiety-ridden cops before, most notably in Serpico and Heat. No actor does it better.
The DVD has some appropriate extras, including a short feature on the insomniac’s world called "Eyes Wide Open." In another piece, director Christopher Nolan and star Al Pacino talk about the film, adding insights to what is already available in two audio tracks, one with Nolan and one with star Hilary Swank, the production designer, editor, cinematographer, and screenwriter. A stills gallery, production credits, and trailer round out the package.