Insomnia (2002) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt
By Alan Bacchus
After the success of Memento, choosing to direct this film based on the 1997 Erik Skjoldbjærg Swedish thriller was a smart career decision for Christopher Nolan. For several reasons; 1) he didn’t have to write the film, and thus exercised his muscles at adapting someone else’s work; 2) he could shoot it back-to-back with Memento, and even before the previous film had come out; 3) he was working with a more conventional story with the rules of the procedural/serial killer genre as a safety net.
The result is a resounding though modest success, not a mindblowingly ambitious production in the vain of the Batman pictures, Inception or even The Prestige, but an unpretentious yet beguiling little one-off nonetheless.
Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Donovan) are a pair of big city LA cops who have come to a cosy little northern Alaskan town to investigate a grisly murder of a young teenaged girl. Dormer in particular is carrying the baggage of an internal affairs investigation involving tampered evidence in an earlier case. The stress of this case combined with the ever-present sun, which because of their high latitude provides perpetual sunlight, puts Dormer in a perpetual haze. Despite this, Dormer is all business and picks apart the case with the precision of a surgeon, instantly taking command.
But on their first sting, Eckhart is accidently shot and killed by Dormer, and a split-second wrong choice by Dormer to cover it up results in a steady downward spiral in which his personal ethics become foggier and foggier. Dormer finds himself teaming up with the serial killer to cover up his partner's killing and save his own ass. He would be home free if it wasn't for a spry and ambitious brownnoser, Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who is close on Dormer’s trail.
There was no need to fuss with the original material, as Hillary Seitz's script is written with efficiency, a near carbon copy of Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s screenplay. It’s an unflashy yet deceitful story that provides a number of unexpected turns - not twists in the sense of shocking moments of revelation, but choices made by the protagonist, which turn the vice of tension and stakes. These moments are spaced out throughout the 90 minutes of the film. First there’s the death of Eckhart and Dormer’s decision to cover it up. Then there’s the introduction of Robin Williams as the serial killer at the halfway point, a new active character in the film and the quiet partnership they form together. And lastly, there's the slight twist of betrayal of Dormer against Finch in the end.
Along the way Nolan finds time to draw just enough attention to a couple of smaller powerful moments of insight into Dormer’s character. The most important of which is when Dormer refuses to sign Ellie’s police report on Eckhart’s death. It comes towards the end when Dormer is at his most haggard. With the report closed off, the trail of Dormer’s cover-up would have been cut off too. But Nolan makes Dormer stop and pause, and without overt motivation he tells Ellie to double-check her report before filing it. It’s dramatized without much of a beat, but looking back it serves as Dormer’s unspoken confession and desire to give himself up and one of the most important moments in the film.
Insomnia is a mostly dour thriller, but what serial killer films aren't? It doesn't have the visceral impact of Seven or Silence of the Lambs. It's part of the simmering tension that underlies the story, but never really explodes with the force of those other two films. Nolan’s frequent musical collaborator other than Hans Zimmer is David Julyan, who composes a moody score not unlike his work on Memento and The Prestige, and perhaps influenced by the atmospheric scores of Howard Shore. It perfectly complements Nolan’s slow and steady pacing and the foggy mountain vistas and overcast sunlit visuals.
Despite the praise and mondo box office success, from these eyes Inception was more of a mess of ideas than anything else. It will be a while before we see if Nolan returns to the intimate close-off style of filmmaking of Insomnia or Memento. We’ll have to wait until after the third Batman movie to find out.
Insomnia is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.