CAST: Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Jonathan Jackson, Nicky Katt, Larry Holden, Paul Dooley

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan

What the movie world needs now is a first-rate thriller peopled by enigmatic heroes and sinister villains, a mystery laced with tension and intellectual complexity and ending with an emotional bang that leaves us limp but deeply satisfied. Christopher Nolan, the man of the minute because of the artful trickery he brought to "Memento," seems on the verge of filling the bill in this Americanization of Erik Skjoldbaerg's 1977 Norwegian hit. His film gets off to an intriguing, stunningly-shot start: the physical and psychological atmosphere he builds as a plane carrying two L.A. detectives sets down on a spooky, snow-smothered stretch of land in Alaska chills us to the bone. There is an alien, ominous stillness in the air; it's all around us and yet not quite audible or visible. The men are here to investigate the brutal murder of an innocent, though sexually active, high school student, and we brace ourselves for grisly sights and scary sounds.

But our feeling of foreboding soon gives way to one of impatience. Will Dormer (Al Pacino), the senior partner of the team, is a man of murky morals, a cop who does not hesitate to plant evidence on scumbags he deems guilty. As we learn in clumsy, roundabout fashion, he's been dispatched to Alaska by his superior in L.A. to put some distance between him and an increasingly aggressive member of the Internal Affairs department. Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) has been sent there for the same reason, and Dormer has cause to suspect that the younger, more scrupulous cop will rat on him when they get back to L.A. That's why it's so convenient when Dormer shoots and kills Eckhart during a frenzied, cloud-smeared chase after a shadowy figure believed to be the young woman's murderer. Surely a tragic case of mistaken identity. Or did Dormer deliberately terminate the one person who could have destroyed him?

Even Dormer does not seem to know the answer to that question. As a result, we witness interminable soul-searching by the seasoned cop as he tosses sleeplessly on his hotel bed in a town where the light is a baked, poisonous-looking grey and there is no such thing as night. He's in this prison of a room when he receives his first phone call from a man who saw him shoot his partner. His name is Walter Finch, he's a published author, and he's the swine who killed the pretty student. And, oh yes, he's played with middling success by a grinning, psychotically soft-spoken Robin Williams, who will apparently stop at nothing to complete his career makeover from cuddly to creepy.

Before long, the two meet face-to-face and are soon swapping secret threats and promises, each recognizing something of himself in the other. We, on the other hand, haven't a clue as to which of these stories we should be focussisng on--the one about justice being done in behalf of the slaughtered girl and her family; the one about Dormer's guilt in the matter of his colleague's demise; or the one about the need of a dewy-eyed Alaskan policewoman (played with puppy-dog zeal by Hilary Swank) to see the supercop from sunny Cal for the seriously flawed individual he truly is.

Pacino is weirdly energized, even when droopy-eyed and stumbling from lack of sleep, and he is never less than compelling in Nolan's spottily effective entry in the thriller sweepstakes. On the up side, Nolan also draws a strikingly confident performance from Jonathan Jackson as a cocky, thoroughly nasty high-schooler suspected of murder. The kid should have stayed in the picture longer.