Review: Insomnia (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2002)

Review: Insomnia (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2002) May 24, 2002

Memento, a smart, stylish neo-noir about a vengeful widower with memory problems that told its story backwards, proved director Christopher Nolan could work wonders with an original idea and a decent gimmick. Now Insomnia, a fairly straightforward and much more linear remake of a recent Norwegian thriller, shows Nolan can be just as compelling when he’s reworking more conventional material. This film marks one of those rare moments when a European story works fairly well in the hands of an American cast; perhaps the fact that Nolan is British helped.

The main character in both films is a cop who travels north of the Arctic Circle during the summer, when the sun never sets, to investigate a murder. There, he does something, quite by accident, that he is desperate to cover up; and thanks to the harsh, unforgiving light that never stops pouring in through his hotel room window, despite his best efforts to block it out, he is sleepless with guilt. The hallucinations he begins to have, in his sleep-deprived state, don’t help either.

In the earlier film, the cop was a Swede played by Stellan Skarsgard, and the murder took place in Norway; here, the cop is from Los Angeles and is played by Al Pacino, and the murder takes place in Nightmute, Alaska. The script, by Hillary Seitz, makes subtle changes to the story in order to make the character more sympathetic and complex; he has a sharper moral compass now, which makes his transgressions all the more troublesome, and he is neither the sexual aggressor nor the hater of animals that he was before. In both films, the cop shoots a dog as part of his cover-up, to trick his colleagues into thinking the bullet has passed through human flesh, but in the American film, the dog is not alive when he shoots it; in fact, it is dead and decaying long before he stumbles across it, which may give the film an even creepier sense of foreboding, even as it absolves him of wrongdoing in the eyes of dog lovers. One change that is anything but subtle: the insomniac cop is now named Will Dormer, which may seem heavy-handed to anyone who remembers their grade-school French.

It gives nothing away to reveal that the killer the cops are looking for is a crime novelist named Walter Finch, who is played by Robin Williams in a rare dramatic turn. Finch insists the murder was an accident, but he is fascinated just the same by the change that has come over him since he broke the greatest taboo of all. Finch also happens to know the secret Dormer is trying to hide, and he uses this to blackmail Dormer into helping him pin the blame for the murder onto the victim’s boyfriend. Like Pacino, Williams has a reputation for going over-the-top, but Nolan gets tense, restrained performances out of both of them, and the constant one-up-manship between them is quite suspenseful; it is especially unnerving to see how lost Dormer seems to be, when he realizes that his ability to figure someone out and push their buttons may be slipping.

The supporting cast is equally excellent, beginning with Hilary Swank, who brings depth and intelligence to what could have been a forgettable role; she plays the local police officer who is almost giddy at the thought of working with an investigator as renowned as Dormer — she even wrote her thesis on him — but when he begins to doctor the evidence, she’s smart enough to notice that something is wrong. Martin Donovan, as Dormer’s partner, and Maura Tierney, as the hotel receptionist, are also effective in small roles, and so is Richard Linklater regular Nicky Katt, who provides a bit of comic relief as one of the Alaskan cops. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is also quite stunning, from a pivotal chase through the fog to a later scene in which Dormer nearly drowns beneath a log boom. Even better, although Insomnia takes place in Alaska, much of it was filmed here in B.C., and the province has rarely looked better.

— A version of this review was first published in the Vancouver Courier.

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