Weekend Film Recommendation: Insomnia

After commercial success with Memento in 2000, Christopher Nolan moved on to remake a Norwegian film that would cement his place as one of the great high-concept thriller directors in showbiz. In 2002, he released this weekend’s movie recommendation: Insomnia.

Al Pacino plays Detective Will Dormer, a legendary detective of the LAPD. Dormer and his young partner Hap (played by Martin Eckhart) are on secondment to a provincial Alaskan town to help solve the murder of a seventeen year-old girl named Kay Connell. The town is unremarkable in most every way, except—as the eager-to-impress cop named Ellie Burr (played by Hilary Swank) explains—this far North, it’s difficult to maintain a grasp on the fact that it can be ten o’clock in the evening and still dazzlingly bright outside. This is no trifling matter for Dormer, as this perennial daylight produces the titular insomnia that soon desperately confuses his otherwise famously expert judgment.

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It’s that judgment, far more than the whodunit surrounding Kay’s murder, that is Insomnia’s focus. Dormer’s relocation to the wilderness occurs amidst an Internal Affairs investigation that he knows will eventually uncover his past indiscretions, and his partner’s dwindling friendship is unlikely to insulate him from an imminent demise.

Indeed, solving the murder is so straightforward that we aren’t even treated to alternative theories about who the culprit might be. Before long, a mediocre novelist named Walter Finch—played superlatively by Robin Williams—approaches Dormer and confesses to the crime. No suspense there. Finch even appears to be rather a hapless old sod, whom Dormer ought to have no trouble at all dispatching with in little to no time.

But, as is Nolan’s wont, the assorted plot threads come together with impressive neatness and tidiness by the third act: Dormer, worn thin by sleep deprivation, stages a badly-planned trap to capture Finch that goes horribly wrong. The consequence is that the stakes change drastically from what we thought we were getting at the film’s outset. Now, Dormer’s the one on the hook, and a solution may require making Finch his accomplice.

Don’t expect the bravura performance Pacino made famous in films like Heat (reviewed here) or Devil’s Advocate or… or… Instead, Pacino’s Dormer is a lugubrious wreck of a man. He descends into frustrated madness at glimpses of sunlight piercing through the cracks in the sides of the hotel window, and he nervously fidgets and chews on gum just to keep his eyes open. Pacino’s characteristic physicality is definitely there, and yet again he inexplicably appears to have that same exclusively darkly colored wardrobe that’s followed him from film to film for the duration of his entire career. However, his performance in Insomnia is wildly different in tone and feel from what Pacino, and most murder thrillers for that matter, usually promise.

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The continuities with Nolan’s previous work (e.g., Memento) and his subsequent films (e.g., Interstellar, and the Dark Knight trilogy) place Insomnia in a strong tradition of exploring the limits of human judgment in desperate settings. Yet the triumph of this film is that it manages to be just as successful in that ambition without making use of the sophisticated tromps l’oeil that make those other films so enthralling (The Prestige takes the cake on that front). Instead, Insomnia is simple—banal, even—with its conceit, and its execution resembles in form many other films of its genre. What distinguishes this film from the rest of Nolan’s canon is that neither does Insomnia rely on theatrical innovations, nor is it remotely as dynamically paced as the cinematography that people now ordinarily associate with Nolan’s work. In fact, the pacing of Insomnia is deliberately sluggish, which falls far afield of the register in which we’re used to seeing Nolan work. All the more impressive that it’s riveting, from start to finish.

Yet as much as I laud Pacino and Nolan, it’s Williams who really shines in Insomnia. There’s a tenderness that he brings to the role that is so oddly relatable, even when describing in some detail how he came to murder a teenage girl he was entrusted to mentor. Never before has that soft timbre of Williams’ voice and that cheeky boyish smile been used so terrifyingly well.


7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Insomnia”

  1. I agree with you that Robin Williams was the best thing about this movie. When he has a strong director, he can deliver incredible dramatic performances. If you like him in this, you would probably also like One Hour Photo.

  2. I am not a fan of this movie. The biggest reason is that, where you see Pacino as a great actor, I see him as possibly the most annoying collection of tics and mannerisms this side of Eric Roberts. Williams is great, and Hillary Swank very good, but Pacino makes it, for me, almost unwatchable.* [Paragraph continued below, with some spoilage.]

    Insomnia also suffers from being the only one of Christopher Nolan's major features for which he didn't write the screenplay. Nolan the director has a very distinctive style that Nolan the writer (along with his brother Jonathan) caters to. The visual flourishes you mention are only a part of it. Nolan is best when he is playing with the question, "What is reality?" and his direction adds dynamism to that question. Here, his attempts at getting to that question fall flat. The film takes a halfhearted stab at it through the vehicle of Finch's role as an author, but then moves aside without ever really tackling it.

    It isn't a question of pacing; Memento isn't fast paced, and it's brilliant. Nolan knows how and when to step on the gas, and that isn't what fails him here. This just isn't his movie in the way so many others are.

    *Dormer was never going to be a sympathetic character, but it is important that we at least empathize with him. The combination of script and acting drains him of that. It's hard to buy into Dormer's descent into desperation as sleep deprivation builds up, given how much of his bad decision making precedes his sleeplessness. That Hap, the only character in the movie who actually knows Dormer, so clearly has had enough of him even before the film starts, doesn't help.

    1. As a followup, the one movie scripted by Nolan that he didn't direct, Man of Steel is an even bigger failure than Insomnia. He's one of those people who needs to be in charge of both ends of a film for it to work. And his next movie is about the British evacuation at Dunkirk, a subject choice that kind of has my head spinning, given his previous body of work.

    2. I really enjoyed reading this comment! While I hadn't considered the importance of getting Nolan to direct material he's written, and I think the point is persuasive, I just have a different draw in his films than you do. Instead of your sense that questioning reality is his main thrust, I mentioned in my post that for me it's the way he toys with impaired judgment. On that, I think "Insomnia" is right on the money.

      (Also, I found "Memento" to be not just fast-paced, but at times downright frenetic — how funny that our experiences of that film diverge so sharply!)

      But, again, thanks for these thoughts. Much for me to ponder.

  3. I preferred the Norwegian version. I found this one a bit over the top. I saw it once and that was enough.

  4. Instead of your sense that questioning reality is his main thrust, I mentioned in my post that for me it's the way he toys with impaired judgment.

    These things are related. Impaired judgment is how Nolan goes about asking what is real. Set aside Inception for the moment, where that is meant literally. (Note that I haven't seen Interstellar yet, though it's close to the top of my list once I get done with Buffy again, as well as the comic series that make up seasons 8-10.) In Memento, Leonard's inability to form long term memories means that his reality is static; it is only with the greatest effort that he can change his universe, so as everyone around him moves forward, he functionally stands still. Yet, Leonard's reality isn't any less real; it is the world that he lives in and the only one that he has. Then, when . . . * [Really, really massive spoilers for Memento down below; don't read it if you haven't seen the movie.]

    In The Dark Knight, Nolan turns this on its head. The Joker's delusions lead him down the path of exploding reality for everyone else. His impaired judgment forces him to see everything differently. I think a lot of people misunderstand the final scenes of The Dark Knight; Nolan is not saying that the revelation Batman arrives at about how he must operate is correct or justified. He's saying that Batman lives in a fundamentally different world than other people, and that, as with The Joker, asking whether he is right misses the point.

    Which brings us back to Inception. It isn't about whether the dreamscapes created are reality or not. It's about Cobb having to ask himself which of those realities he wants to live in. He and Mal spent a whole lifetime together in the bottom level of that dream. That wasn't imaginary.

    One of my problems with Insomnia is that I don't think that the choices that Dormer confronts are very interesting. He stumbles into his biggest problem by accident. From there, he mostly just seems along for the ride, flowing down the path of least resistance. Finch is more interesting, but he never really becomes the center of attention the way that The Joker does, so he can't carry the movie. And more than anything else, Dormer is boring.

    I do love Christopher Nolan, though.

    *. . . Teddy tells him how they've been killing people together for years, and that (perhaps truthfully, perhaps not) Leonard is the Sammy Jankis character, we see how divergent those realities are. And then we watch Leonard seize control of his reality for a brief moment and set in motion its demolition, with no idea where he goes once he's killed Teddy.

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