The film that helped land Christopher Nolan the keys to the Batcave, and the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Warner Bros., Insomnia is an oft overlooked part of the acclaimed filmmaker’s library. That’s a surprising fact considering the talent on screen, and considering that this is an entertaining film wearing the aesthetic of a talented director not yet on the receiving end of a limitless budget.
Filmed over the course of three months in 2001, in and around British Columbia, Insomnia is set in the fictional town of Nightmute, Alaska, where the sun never sets; it’s a place where only people born there seem to settle down, unless they’re after a different kind of escape. It stars Al Pacino as veteran homicide detective Will Dormer, who has been sent into the mountains to help solve a murder case in the small and secluded town. But the film doesn’t remain a basic murder mystery. In Nolan fashion, it takes on a new identity about halfway through and becomes less about who committed the crime and more about why.
Insomnia is filled to the brim with little hints at the types of films Nolan would eventually make. From the mystery that runs just beneath the surface all the way through to a significant piece of information late in the film, Nolan’s hallmarks have been there from the start. Still, these are things shared by his first feature, Memento, and yet what Insomnia does introduce us to is Nolan’s obsession with setting as an invaluable asset to the story he’s telling. Here, the setting is often an obstacle, as when Dormer and his fellow officers must run up the rocky incline towards the cabin their suspect has taken refuge in, and when Dormer is in pursuit of the same suspect later on, this time required to leap from log to floating log at the shoreline.
The setting becomes an important part of the climax too. Clearly the environment is as much about atmosphere and tone as it is practicality. The most memorable example comes at the close of the first act, when Dormer and co. are moving through the foggy beach in search of the suspect. Silhouettes and trees pop up as we follow Dormer through a veil of fog, moving closer to the film’s fateful turning point. When Dormer shoots and murders his partner, presumably by accident, it’s the culmination of the fear and eventual distrust between partners caused by an internal affairs investigation that’s underway back home. Pacino is mesmerizing as a man who excels at his job, but who may just be willing to bend the rules on occasion to suit the needs of justice. This becomes more and more clear and the doubt surrounding what happened on the beach becomes ever more present.
The late Robin Williams takes a chilling turn as the suspect in the murder investigation of a seventeen year old girl. Nolan said of Williams that his performance is “a very underrated bit of work on his part,” citing that not once in a hundred viewings of the film throughout the editing phase did he stop seeing the character and start to see the actor. Hilary Swank plays young detective Ellie Burr, a necessary shot of youth in a weary and tired tale about a man whose conscience begins to get the better of him. Swank does well with the role, though her character seems to fall a little to the wayside in the back half of act two. Still, her final scenes and in particular the very final dialogue between her character and Pacino’s is a somber yet also hopeful one, and gives the character the drive to continue forward.
Hilary Seitz’s script (with an uncredited final draft by Nolan) is a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name and Insomnia managed to gross $113 million worldwide and garner critical acclaim at the time. Still, it’s easy to understand why it becomes the less spoken-about film, wedged in between the cult classic Memento and the launch of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with Batman Begins. Perhaps Insomnia’s greatest strength is in its cast, and every scene between Pacino and Williams is riveting.
Both of their characters share far more in common than Detective Dormer would ever like to admit, and their circumstances share as many similarities as they do differences. The film spends a lot of time visualizing fatigue, showing us through visual and sound editing the deterioration of Dormer’s mind. As important as these visual cues so often are, it’s the lighting work that’s essential to the film’s design. It’s an incredibly dark film, often shot in tight environments, and Nolan stated that creating a dark tale in a place with limitless sunlight was something he found to be a compelling opportunity. Telling the story of a character succumbing to a lack of sleep might easily tire its audience, but Nolan and his crew, including cinematographer Wally Pfister (who would become a frequent collaborator of Nolan’s) found clever ways to circumvent the possibility.
Still, while Insomnia is an undoubtedly gripping thriller, it fails to earn the kind of unforgettable aura shared by some of Nolan’s other films. Whilst it’s a technically sound and competently written film, its acting is notably the highlight and may be the sole reason for revisiting it. For a glimpse into Nolan’s craft and a taste of what he would eventually hone and (arguably) perfect in terms of style, fans should seek out an opportunity to see Insomnia at least once. Visually lush and with a flow that never drags, it’s not hard to see why Insomnia convinced Warner Bros. that it had some serious talent within its walls.
Film ’89 Verdict – 7/10