FILM REVIEW: Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia (USA, 2002)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hillary Swank

‘Conventional’ is not a word we have come to associate with Christopher Nolan. It seems almost insulting to use the term around someone whose unique blend of blockbuster action and head-scrambling substance has made him one of the most exciting directors working today. This is especially true in an age where blockbusters are increasingly formulaic in both script and execution.

But whatever his subsequent triumphs, there’s no getting away from the fact that Insomnia is Nolan’s most ‘conventional’ film, insofar as it conforms to many of the archetypes and plot strands we have come to associate with the crime thriller. Those who viewed Memento repeatedly to marvel at its precocious originality may leave Insomnia feeling underwhelmed. But don’t despair: there is enough of Nolan’s magic in Insomnia to keep the experience fulfilling.Look at it this way. If Memento was the left-field bolt from the blue which made the executives sit up and take notice, then Insomnia is the trial run to see whether Nolan could be trusted with bigger budgets. Giving him a foreign language film to remake is a very interesting choice, since American remakes of foreign films generally make more money than the originals while being inferior in quality. If Nolan could make a much-admired Norwegian film into an equally-admired American one, it would open up more possibilities (not least of which, the chance to do a Batman movie).

By relocating the story from Norway to Alaska, Insomnia has to take on certain characteristics of the classic American crime thrillers of recent years. Setting the story in a small fishing village in which very little happens hints back in some small way to Fargo: there is the same idea that “a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere”, albeit without the quirky wit of the Coens. There are also a whole series of cop films which focus on policeman feeling out of their depth – from John McClane in Die Hard to Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks, we’ve seen that story a hundred times before.Because these conventions are hardwired into the script, there is a limit on how much invention and inversion Nolan can attempt on screen. The opening forty minutes, up until the shooting in the woods, are impressively shot but feel very generic, with the characters delivering lines you could almost repeat in your sleep. But from thereon in, Nolan’s creative decisions begin to pay off, starting with his decision to use old-fashioned visual effects. The log cabin sets look like they have stood there for decades, and the use of real fog makes the experience more involving. Compare the chase scene in the woods to the chase scene in The Fog remake, and it’s not hard to see which approach works and which doesn’t.

Both the original and the remake invert one of the key conventions of film noir, namely the visual emphasis on darkness and shadow to create suspense, threat or a safe hiding place for the characters. Here, in a place where the sun shines twenty-three hours a day, there is nowhere to hide, either from people or from the secrets one carries. The film is as much about the crime as it is about how individuals start to come apart at the seams when their normal patterns (like sleep) are disrupted.
When the film begins, Will Dormer is a composed, confident detective. When he interviews Randy Stetz, he quickly curtails the young lad’s impudent remarks through quiet, considered statements. From an audience point of view, it is refreshing to see an Al Pacino performance in which he is not shouting his way through every line of the script. But as the days and nights roll on, he gradually becomes more desperate and irrational, until he no longer cares about the case. His dying words, “let me sleep”, are not just a fitting one-liner: they reflect a deep desire to forget his past, and all the dark secrets which have bubbled to the surface in these extreme circumstances.

The film to which Insomnia owes the greatest debt, in the best possible way, is The Silence of the Lambs. At the centre of both stories is the ambiguous relationship between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, in which neither is pure or easily defined. Both Will Dormer and Walter Finch (a good performance by Robin Williams) are individuals who have good intentions, both towards the murdered girl and their respective jobs. But they are also both capable of evil feats which may or may not be intentional; when asked if he intended to kill his partner, Dormer replies that he isn’t sure anymore.The scene where Dormer and Finch meet on the ferry is an interesting restaging of the first meeting between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector. The relationship between these characters is much more complex than that of a cop chasing a murderer. Dormer is torn between a desire to kill Finch for what he did and the need to cover his tracks after his ‘accident’ in the woods. It is stretching a point to say that these characters become platonically involved, and Finch is nothing like as psychotic as Lector. But there is a definite echo of such a relationship in these characters, which becomes more marked as the different twists play out.

For the other characters in the film, it is a case of coming to terms with reality rather than with themselves. Conscience still plays a role, but in the case of Hillary Swank’s young rookie Ellie Burr, it is more to do with adjusting her idealised view of Dormer. Starting out as a Nancy Drew goody-two-shoes, she comes to distrust Dormer’s versions of events – her dilemma is not a moral one, but one of reputations. In the final scene she is about to throw away the bullet which would incriminate Dormer and prove he was lying about his partner – she doesn’t care about the truth, only about preserving her admiration for him. Dormer rightly stops her, affirming his goodness but at the cost of destroying her idol.Like most Christopher Nolan films, there is plenty of action-packed spectacle to balance out the soul-searching and entertain those who aren’t interested quite so much in character development. The chase scenes through the woods and over the logjam are energetically shot with a good score from David Julyan, and the camerawork is very solid. The final showdown between Dormer and Finch does feel like a half-baked Mexican standoff, but the ending scene with Dormer and Burr just about makes up for it.
Insomnia is an interesting and successful remake which plays with Hollywood conventions and makes an admirable result out of slightly worn ingredients. Had the result not been quite so satisfying, Batman Begins would probably not have happened. In the long run, this film may become seen as a lesser work, in the line of Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! or Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing – something which pushed the envelope just a little, to get the money for another film which could push it further. If nothing else, it is proof that Hollywood remakes of foreign films need not be dumb and derivative. One hopes that David Fincher will bear this in mind when he remakes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: A gripping if generic thriller

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