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Odd Acting Choices: Al Pacino in “Insomnia”

Odd Acting Choices is The Flyover’s potentially ongoing, deeply tongue-in-cheek series highlighting the unexplainable and certainly unnecessary acting moments from some of our most celebrated actors.

The Actor

Without question, one of the most celebrated actors of the past half-century in film is Al Pacino. From his earlier, legendary roles in The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, and Scarface, to later successes in Glengarry Glen RossHeat, and his more recent work for HBO, Pacino has always been a singular talent, able to communicate more with a glance as Michael Corleone than most actors could express in a monologue. 

However, after winning an Oscar for his performance as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman (“HOO-AH”), the nuanced, economical movements and dialogue of his signature roles gave way to something closer to a cartoon character.

When you’ve got post-Scent of a Woman Al Pacino in your movie, you just know there’s going to be at least one moment when he inexplicably shouts something at the top of his lungs: “I had coffee with McCaulley…HALF AN HOUR AGO!” from Heat; “I’m a FAN OF MAN!” and pretty much all of The Devil’s Advocate; “We CLAW with our FINGERNAILS for that inch” in Any Given Sunday. The list is not only endless, but endlessly entertaining.

Odd Acting Choices with Al Pacino should be offered to every aspiring film and acting student. Just watch Heat – a nearly perfect movie where Pacino dials it up way past 11 for almost the entire movie. If it were any other actor, you would completely dismiss the overacting and scenery chewing. But, for some reason, it works! Pacino pulls it off! Even in his worst movies (looking at you, Jack & Jill), his unique Pacino-ness provides something memorable that is both bizarre and entertaining.

In honor of Christopher Nolan’s latest tour de force, Tenet, the first film since February that has moviegoing fans dipping their toes back into the popcorn laden aisles of their local cinemas, Odd Acting Choices looks at perhaps the strangest scene in one of Nolan’s most overlooked films, Insomnia.

The Movie

There was notable anticipation surrounding Insomnia prior to its release, not only because it was Nolan’s follow up to the mind-bending Memento just two years earlier, but also because it would square Al Pacino off against another Oscar-winner, Robin Williams. In fact, the movie featured a third Oscar-winning star, Hilary Swank, who actually outshines them both.

Pacino plays Detective Will Dormer, a Los Angeles detective who is sent with his partner to help solve the murder of a 17-year-old girl in Alaska. Pacino’s character has recently been flagged by Internal Affairs for evidence in a previous case, an investigation in which his partner is set to testify. So, when Pacino’s character, while looking for clues in the Alaskan fog, accidentally mistakes his partner for a suspect and shoots him, he now has at least two secrets to conceal while looking for the murderer of the young girl.

[Ed. Note: From now on, we’re just going to refer to him as Pacino, ok? He’s not Detective Will Dormer any more than he’s Coach Tony D’Amato. After 1993, he’s always just Al Pacino. Al Pacino as a cop. Al Pacino as a bookie. Al Pacino as a washed up singer.] 

Robin Williams is excellent as a seemingly kind, yet exceedingly odd and creepy, crime writer named Walter Finch who is holed up in the same Alaskan town. When Pacino attempts to pin the murder of his partner on Finch, who he has also fingered as the prime suspect in the original murder case, the cat and mouse game begins.

Insomnia is not Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement, but it contains many of the things that make him one of our most gifted directors. Despite some of its flaws, it is an intense, engaging, twist-around-every-corner thriller. The direction and cinematography, as one would expect, are astounding, as are the performances by the three leads; Williams and Swank, in particular, are as good as they’ve ever been throughout the film.

But, even a director as great as Christopher Nolan could never have conceived the oddest acting choice in the film.

The Scene

The moment comes about halfway through the film, as Pacino interrogates Tanya (Katharine Isabelle) about the night of her best friend’s murder. 

The interrogation begins with Pacino and the young potential suspect flirting in his car, which, while clearly a tactic by the veteran detective, is certainly strange enough. After gaining her confidence, Pacino then plays chicken on the highway with an eighteen-wheeler, before literally dragging Tanya to the spot where her best friend was found after her murder.

“This is the spot, where your best friend’s naked body was dumped,” Pacino begins. 

Tanya is visibly terrified and confused; maybe she’s already figured out that the detective knows she’s been lying about her whereabouts the night of the murder. Or maybe she’s aware of the decibel-shattering rage that’s about to explode from Pacino’s throat. 

WRAPPED UP! IN GARBAGE BAGS!

And then, immediately after the volcano erupts, normal dialogue more suitable for actual humans resumes.

On its surface, there’s nothing particularly funny about the line or the situation itself. Pacino is simply playing a cop who is trying to shake his potential suspect. We’ve seen this sort of thing in every “Law and Order” ripoff in history.

Yet, it is an objectively odd acting choice and an inexplicably hilarious line reading. 

It’s a question as daunting as the chicken or the egg: why does he need to yell? And not only the yelling, but why this line? What was it about this line that Al thought, while no doubt chain smoking in his trailer, “Aw yea, I’m gonna NAIL THIS SCENE!”

Well, it certainly wasn’t the script:

<<
He grabs her by the arm. Jerks it up. She CRIES out. Will Pacino leans in. 

PACINO (cont’d) 

You like games, little girl? Well how about this one – you’re standing right where her naked body was found wrapped up in a garbage bag. 

Tanya’s eyes grow wide. She looks around her. Disgusting, rotten. A SEAGULL pecking at the body of a dead bird. She tries to break away…
<<

Read the line aloud. There is nothing in that script to suggest yelling of any kind. If anything, it suggests a softer tone, almost casual in its intimidation. You could almost see Jerry Orbach or Jesse Martin delivering the line in their understated way.

But, this would be to dismiss the genius of Al Pacino. 

This is how Pacino, who should deserve a screenwriting credit, read the line:

<<
PACINO (cont’d) 

(slowly becoming enraged)

Hey, look around. Come here, I wanna show you something. Maybe you’ll understand why I’m talking to you. This is the spot…where your best friend’s naked body was dumped…WRAPPED UP…IN GARBAGE BAGS!!!!!!!!!!
<<

Only Pacino could add that many ellipses and rage in one line while simultaneously rewriting the script; one garbage bag wasn’t enough for Pacino, there had to be multiple!

It is absolutely insane. It is completely unnecessary. Yet, somehow, inexplicably, it works.

Nearly ten years ago, a friend of mine was staying at my house while I was at work. We had plans later in the evening, and he decided to watch a DVD from my then-extensive collection while he was waiting. When he texted me that he was going to watch Insomnia for the first time, I knew that all I had to do was wait. 

Sure enough, about an hour later, I get a text:

“GAAAARRRRRBAAAAAAGE BAAAAAAAGGGGGSSS!!! LOLOLOL”

To this day, it is a scene that my friends and I continue to enjoy, make fun of, and attempt to impersonate. It is the first thing I think of when I recall some of our late nights together, and almost the only thing I consider when I think of this movie. The next time you literally wrap up the garbage before taking it out to the trash, you’ll be thinking of it as well.

I guess odd acting choices don’t always need to make sense, they just need to be memorable. And this one, like the man who yelled it, certainly is.

2 thoughts on “Odd Acting Choices: Al Pacino in “Insomnia”

  1. Reply
    Joan
    September 15, 2020 at 12:23 am

    Enjoyed your review of Pacino’s roles. You can tell you are very passionate about your writings and topics. Enjoy reading them.

    1. Reply
      kyle
      September 16, 2020 at 11:33 pm

      Thanks for reading!

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