When Will Dormer (Al Pacino) goes through the floor of the fishing cabin, into the water, into the tunnels, he enters a world where things are turned upside down. Like Alice, he goes through the looking-glass. Here is a world where killers remove evidence and cops create it, where cops are brought to justice and killers are let go, where killers collect evidence from cops (Walter Finch’s tape recorder) and think they’re helping the police, and where police plant evidence and killers replant it – and do a better job. Welcome to Alaska, where night looks like day, and where the innocent feel guilty and the guilty see themselves as innocent.
And Dormer is innocent in the death of his partner. I think it is clear the shooting was an accident, but in this place where cops kill (another inversion), Hap’s words plant the idea in Dormer that he wanted this thing, that he meant to kill his partner. Dormer also experiences a figurative “fall” from grace – like the original fall – along with his physical fall. Here, in the fog, in this gray world, there is no clear black and white, no clear good and evil. In the fog, your partner and a killer can look the same. It’s not even clear who is the greater danger. Dormer discusses his fear that all of his cases will be tossed out, the fear of his legacy being tainted, with Hap, trying to coerce him, to convince him not to cooperate with Internal Affairs. Later it is Finch who repeats all the same arguments back to Dormer. In another inversion, the killer is sympathetic, while the partner is not. Early on, when Finch first telephones Dormer, he even uses the word “partner” to describe their relationship.
(It should be emphasized how the movie’s visual element matches these ideas. The scene leading up to Hap’s partners death is disorienting and disjointed with low visibility, matching the inner landscape we are about to land in. Up until now, Dormer has been in control; notice how he handles the plane turbulence with humor, and compare the visuals in that scene (the plane is shot often from above, an “in control” position, seeing all) with the visuals here where the “turbulence” is all physiological. The same could be said for many other scenes, such as the way Dormer’s hotel room is shot.)
(And one more side bar. There’s a lot of fun with names in the movie too. Nightmute has silenced the night- there is only daylight. Dormer, “to sleep,” can’t. Hap is hapless. Ellie Burr is a burr in everyone’s side. Finch can’t stop singing about what he’s done.)
In this looking-glass world, Finch, the killer, and Dormer, the cop, are flip sides of the same coin. When Dormer says that the killer will kill again because once you cross that line, you don’t go back, he’s also speaking about himself and about planting evidence. Once you manipulate the situation to gain a conviction and get away with it, as we learn he did in L.A. in the Dobb’s case, you don’t go back to just accepting what you’re handed. And there are other connections between these two characters. One is a cop, the other failed at being a cop, and had to settle for writing about them. Both couldn’t sleep on coming to the endless summer of Alaska – Dormer even breaks Finch’s record. We think of Finch when Dormer gets a bit of the seduction routine from Kay’s best friend, Tanya, because it was probably similar to what Finch got from Kay – the come one which, when it didn’t go anywhere, put him into such a rage. And examine Dormer’s first view of Finch’s face. He sees him through a glass door, and the image is very much like looking at a reflection in a window.
There are other important symmetries, and two illustrate the differences between the time before Dormer’s fall and after. Before the fall, he interrogates Randy Stetz, the boyfriend, while his drive with Tanya is after the fall. The first is public (Randy is taken out of class in front of all his peers and other officers are present), and the latter is private to the point that Dormer doesn’t even share the knowledge he’s gained with the other police officers. His methods go from verbal intimidation to physical. Furthermore, his trick with the oncoming truck during the second interview is mirrored near the end of the movie when he imagines the truck coming at him. The truck is the truth, rushing towards you without time to brake, ready to run over everything in its path. You can’t get out of the way of truth – you can only get out of its way. This episode gets the girlfriend talking, but Dormer forgets there are two passengers in the car, and he also has to deal with the truth. When he imagines a truck in his lane on the way to the killer’s cabin, the symmetry is complete. Sure it’s all in his head, like everything else – his room is not light, it is dark – but that’s the point. He’s battling the lies he’s left in his wake, and any light, any little bit of light, shines on his guilty conscience.
All of this fall from grace, this fall down the rabbit hole, into the land of the looking-glass (I know, I’m mixing my Alice in Wonderland references), ends when, in another example of symmetry in the movie, Dormer goes through the floor of Finch’s cabin into the water near the end of the movie, just as he went through the floor of the fishing cabin at the beach. He then exits this inverted world, coming up out of the water and back through the floor to a land without moral ambiguity, without bad cops or good killers. And there he saves the day, so to speak; he serves justice in such a conventionally movie way we are, perhaps, a little disappointed. Like too many movies, or bad mysteries like Finch’s, this is too neat. No trial for either man, no need to worry about untangling the web of lies because justice was served to anyone who might have been guilty of anything. And our hero even manages to pass along a lesson to his protégé, who is all too ready to throw away a 9mm casing no one else is interested in. It is, as Dormer told her earlier, the small stuff that counts. Don’t begin down that road, he tells her. The casing leads to planting blood which leads to me. And now at last he can sleep. He dies and then, fade to black. Lesson learned, right?
But, of course, it is not this simple. Because when we watched Dormer go down into the tunnel at the fishing cabin, go into the fog, we didn’t know that he was already in that morally gray world. It is only later that we learn that he went through the looking glass before coming to Alaska. He crossed that line on the Dobb’s case, and the Hap’s blood on his shirt is the blood on his sleeve from the Dobb’s case. Like Lady MacBeth, he washes it and washes it, but can’t remove his guilty feelings. Because of the Dobb’s blood, he is a suspect in spilling Hap’s blood.
Images of blood seeping into clothing fibers begin the movie and return often. Is it Dobbs’ clothes, Dormer cuff when he planted the evidence on Dobbs, or is the blood from Hap, or blood washed away by Finch after Kay’s murder, or is it from Kay’s dress, (which Finch keeps)? Does blood equal guilt? There is no blood on Finch, but Hap’s blood is on Dormer. Dobbs had no blood on his clothing, but Dormer got some on himself when he planted it. So in another inversion, the guilty have no blood, and the “less guilty” are covered in it. Just as the blood spreads in the repeated visual, so does Dormer’s guilt, so does the circle of lies/cover ups he needs to make, so do the ramifications of his actions. His planting the evidence on Dobbs leads to pressure from Internal Affairs, which leads to Alaska, which leads to Hap’s death, and so on.
And so, when we find out that Dormer had already crossed the line, and therefore that the whole movie takes place in this gray, foggy, morally unclear world, we realize that we all live in this gray world. That our world is the looking-glass world and the other world only exists as an ideal in our minds. That’s why Internal Affairs can “get” anyone, and why Dormer calls the I.A. investigator a failed cop (just like Finch). Internal Affairs sees the world in black and white, because, as Dormer points out, they have never been on the street, in the real world. Every cop has crossed that line at least a little, except for cops in our heads, like the police officer in the starched uniform Finch remembers meeting as a kid when his mother’s purse was taken. That is the child’s view of the world, and it is a false one. Or it’s the view of the world of a rookie, like Ellie – and this is her coming of age story in that regard. (Compare her first meeting with Dormer with her confrontation of him in Finch’s cabin.) We all live in this gray world; we just want to pretend it’s black and white. We like to think that guilty can’t sleep at night and the light of justice illuminates dark corners, but they can and it doesn’t.
Speaking of illuminating dark corners, remember our surprise at seeing Dormer’s hotel room light turned on; we, like him, thought it was bright in there already. Many things could hide before that light was turned on, things like Rachel’s (the hotel owner) story, which we never learn. Not that it’s important in the details. She is just like us, an ordinary person, but notice the shadow Dormer makes across her sleeping face in the morning – she is not innocent, as we once thought. She tells him that everyone who comes to Nightmute from the outside is like that, that they are all “running away” from something. And so are we all. We all have stories we would rather not tell, and like her, we should not presume to judge those whose stories we do happen to hear, because no one is innocent in this inverted world. We all are living in the looking-glass, not only in the world out there, but also inside our hearts as well.