Christopher Nolan's first film since his limelight-grabbing, a-chronological indie hit Memento (2000) is blessed with a cast headed by three Oscar winners: Al Pacino as an LA detective investigating a murder in Alaska, Robin Williams as a reclusive novelist, and Hilary Swank as a local cop. And yet watching Insomnia is like playing crazy golf with Tiger Woods. The whole is far less than the sum of the parts, which is a pity because Insomnia could have taken us to unfamiliar places (it is set in one - a small Alaskan town). But maybe we should be wary of asking too much of Nolan. After all, this 32-year-old Brit has in the space of four years moved from the humble origins of the self-financed mini-feature Following (1998), shot over several weekends on the streets of London, via critical and cult praise for Memento, to this glossy (if glassy) thriller, a remake of a Norwegian film from a few years back. Perhaps it was all he could do to catch his breath.
First things first: it's so nice to have a real opening credits sequence, in this age where we very often just get the title stamped on the screen before being plunged into the action. Snatches of someone screaming and being struck, and of blood dripping, indicate some sort of terrible crime, and then the film is following a small plane carrying Will Dormer (Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) towards the remote town in question. They have been sent to assist the local authorities who are investigating the murder of a 17-year-old girl. Detective Ellie Burr (the potentially striking but here much underused Swank) greets them as they step onto the gangway. Her claims that it's a privilege to be working with Dormer nicely introduces Pacino as very much the star of the show, and allows the film to accommodate and make use of the welcome familiarity of his persona.
What is missing from this mystery story is mystery. The crime that kicks off the investigation seems to be nothing other than what we are told in the minimal exposition. The film is very prosaic in the way it lobs the dead girl's no-good boyfriend at us, as if we all know that he's not truly a suspect but might appreciate some entertainment before the real killer turns up. After all, if the only person needing arresting in the film were this kid, you probably don't require Al Pacino to play the scene. Of course, a run-of-the-mill investigation has the potential to lead to monumental events, and because of this, the early sequences are steeped in anticipation. Insomnia is in a position to say things about the difference between big-city and small-town cops, between men and women in the workplace, between corrupt people trying to do good and decent citizens doing evil things; none of these observations is especially original or insightful, but they are all ever-potent and could have rounded out the film. And what a setting: as enclosed a town as the lakeside community in High Plains Drifter (1972), these people could provide a very striking insomniacs' view of the world. There might have even been some cheap but effective gags to be made about similarities between Alaskans and Los Angelenos. The film, though, is content to marshal its heavyweight stars along the road towards the humdrum climax, in which two men with guns have a shootout.
The film has at its fingertips a potentially rich dramatic device, that of the cop falling prey to insomnia. While Dormer, befuddled by the everlasting daylight, tosses and turns in bed, impressionistic views of the girl being murdered interrupt his attempts at sleep. But although the flashbacks are presumably brought on by, and add to, Dormer's mounting fatigue, what motivates the glimpses of the girl's slaughter? If they are showing the viewer what actually happened, Dormer wasn't there and so could not know, in which case they come from a different part of the narrative voice and the insomnia scenes are inconsistent. And if they are Dormer's hallucinations, then they represent a very simplistic attempt to equate the girl's murder with a crime Dormer commits during the course of the investigation which I won't give away here, and thus make Dormer the killer's kindred spirit. There is a sense here that Nolan and editor Dody Dorn, who cut Memento, are trying to repeat that film's success with switches in time, or are even attempting to establish the technique as a Nolan trademark. The reasons for Dormer's insomnia are not especially convincing, anyway: though understandably disoriented by the lack of nightfall, he might have had more of a chance of sleep had he taped up his window blind a bit better. And at one point, Ellie comes to call for him and he steps out of his room excusing his haggard look with the explanation that he was just trying to get some sleep, but the film is vague as to whether he managed it or not: if he did, then the insomnia is not the burden it was cracked up to be, and if he didn't, the viewer needs to know this for sure. Whereas the film should have been obsessing over the issue, it treats it very lightly, almost as a running joke.
Perhaps most damaging is the casting of Williams as Walter Finch, the character who all too obviously provides the clues as to what happened to the girl. Williams has received some criticism in recent years for a succession of sentimental performances in mediocre films, such as Patch Adams (1997) and Bicentennial Man (1999). Even his psychologist in Good Will Hunting (1997), the role for which he won an Oscar, suffers from the cutes; with a beard, Williams was even more cuddly than usual. So 2002 has seen him play darker personalities: Death To Smoochy has yet to be released here, but soon he will be on screen in One Hour Photo, in which he is a photo developer who obsesses over his clients' snaps. And Insomnia allows him to be the flip side of the Pacino character. But here the effort shows too much: Williams wants to be liked, he wants to be a respected villain. Finch is an underwritten character anyway: impotence is hinted at, but his friendship with the girl is only outlined. So Williams has the difficult task of filling in the missing pieces, which he attempts to do by playing the man as 'ordinary'. If the killing was an accident, the film needs to be honest: this man is not a villain. But the narrative positions him as exactly that. His cat-and-mouse game with Dormer might have exposed further Dormer's tendency to shady compromise. But it is hard to believe that Dormer, or Pacino, would fall for the old narrative trick of unwittingly having their corrupt conversation tape-recorded. And Williams' quality of uncertainty, as if he is still screen-testing, undermines the intended wiliness of Finch's plan.
Insomnia remains, however, a very attractive, well-paced, and unpretentious movie. And if it ultimately fails to fulfill its promise, it doesn't suggest that Christopher Nolan should be doubted. He clearly has a very solid desire to make restrained, sure-footed films, and with his budgets kept fairly low so far, he won't be hounded out of the industry as a threat. Is he going to be one of the greats? Or, is there a Michael Cimino lurking inside him? It will be fun and fascinating to see how this career develops.
Reviewed by Edward Lamberti
Reader comments about Insomnia
cal (Email address withheld) writes:
This review is poking holes in a film that is durable and compltete. Whining that it is not much of a mysterey is silly, it is quite clear the film never intends to be. Nolan has fashioned an intense character study. A man finds himself faced with trying to exist with the same guilt he has assigned on countless others. Your review completely misreads this. The credit sequence does not depict the murder even though that is how we misinterperet the images we see. They are to do with Dormer's past. Hilary Swank is not underused, she is a mirror of Dormer's past. The last vestige of his lost enthusiasm, innocence and principles. Williams is excellently cast. He equally acts as a mirror to Dormer's descent. The film's struggle comes from Dormer (in his weakened state of overbearing guilt and lack of sleep) being pulled between his admired past and his impending defferential and moral destitution.
Come on, Nolan and Pacino's fantastic work deserved a better analysis than this cynical hackery of a write up.
Matt (Email address withheld) writes:
The critic seems to be the type that uses criticism of a film as a way to show us how smart he is.
Don't pay attention to his review. It's meaningless. If you go to see Insomnia you will be seeing one of the most fascinating movies of the year. Not to mention Al Pacino's best performance in years.
Nick H (Email address withheld) writes:
Ignore the criticisms of the review, I thought it was spot on. The reviewer obvoiusly is enthusistic about Nolan, but just does not blindly worship a film due to it's cast and prdigree. What is wrong with expecting the best from such a pedigree and if it fails to deliver that then say so! I thought it was a thought provoking review that made me question critically what I had seen. Keep it up!
cal (Email address withheld) writes:
no, sorry. you misunderstand. to disagree with something does not mean you blindly worship what you are advocating. i felt that nolan's debut, following, was a pretentious calling card and that pacino has been coasting throughout the nineties with merely a hoo-haa to keep him active. that does not change the fact that this review misrepresents a very good, well thought out film. just because the reveiwer has failed to pay attention to the complexities of the film does not make his comments justified. there is very little criticism here that is based on what actually was conveyed by the film that is not second hand from similair overtly critical reveiws. kamera usually does a great job of analyising new cinema. this however ranks with the rushed out unoriginal criticques that have cropped up every now again ruining an otherwise excellent web site.
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