Director: Christopher Nolan / Writer: Hillary Seitz (from original script by Nikolaj Frobenius) / DoP: Wally Pfister / Editor: Dody Dorn / Score: David Julyan
Cast: Al Pacino / Martin Donovan / Hilary Swank / Paul Dooley / Robin Williams / Maura Tierney / Jonathan Jackson
Of the legions of fans accumulated by British Director Christopher Nolan over the years (myself included), I’m betting that most of them got onboard with his Batman trilogy. Either that, or any of the pictures up to and including this year’s Dunkirk? But Insomnia..?
Coming after his stunning breakthrough picture Memento, a film that marked his arrival as a force to be reckoned with, along with trusty DP Wally Pfister, I’ve thought of Insomnia, as that difficult second album (technically, it’s more like feature #3, but bear with me). Luckily for us, Nolan chose wisely: a remake of an obscure Norwegian film of the same title, that he could treat as a straight ‘police-procedural’. It was as safe a choice, as he might reasonably have made.
The film opens its account with a glorious aerial shot of a plane cruising over a blue-tinged glacier (in Alaska, I’m guessing); it’s really quite something and kudos to Pfister here, as even this looks bloomin’ wondrous. The shot’s purpose, tells us that wherever it’s going to land, it’s going to be somewhere remote AND at a fair remove from the law. Onboard, is Detective Will Dormer (that’ll be Al Pacino, an actor who looks knackered already) and his buddy, Det. Hap Eckhart (a forgettable turn from Martin Donovan who, in another life, might’ve played a nameless, doomed Redshirt on Star Trek).
The local law meets their plane, in the form of Ellie Burr (a winning, open performance from Hilary Swank). Burr’s a young, ‘academy-fresh’ cop who, it turns out, studied a notorious case involving Dormer, so she’s thrilled skinny to meet him in the flesh. That’s all well and good, but you should be aware of meeting your idols, young Ms. Burr…
For now though, we have to build up this hero, so we’ll have something to knock-down later. Nolan does this, by expanding the reason why Dormer & Eckhart find themselves in ‘Nightmute: Halibut Fishing Capitol of the World’ in the first place: a girl’s been murdered and the local plod need outside help in tracking-down the killer.
Keen to hit the ground running – and build his mythos – Dormer’s second port of call – after the cop shop – is the mortuary, where he notes that the victim’s toe and fingernails had been clipped after death, but before her body was dumped: all the better to cover his tracks… Dormer’s in his element at this stage; dazzling the locals with a nous earned on the mean streets of L.A. and therein lies his problem: it turns out, that he and Eckhart are under investigation by ‘Internal Affairs’, over irregularities in an old case; one that Eckhart’s wriggling out of by ‘cutting a deal’, thus leaving Dormer twisting in the wind. No wonder their relationship appears so poisonous…
Next day, in a foreshadowing of what’s to come, Burr complains to Dormer, that she’s never allowed to sink her teeth into ‘anything but misdemeanours’ – a situation that Dormer reassures her, is an aspect of policing as vital as the big stuff; to him, ‘it’s all important’. The last piece of the puzzle-to-come, slots into place with our first look at Randy, the victim’s two-timing boyfriend and someone who contributed his fair share to the victim’s collection of bruises. He’s a lanky, cocky slacker, but Dormer cuts him down with ease, pulling Randy’s chair closer to his, in a display of man-spreading dominance. It’s powerful, as it give us a glimpse of how Dormer behaves on his home pitch – and how he might’ve bent the rules in the past. In Pacino’s hands, Dormer is a cranky, unreliable player for whom the trip to Nightmute is a ‘Greatest Hits’ tour; he hasn’t produced anything new in years. He’s got a trophy cabinet full of convictions, though each one is rendered unsafe by the rumblings over at IA; no wonder he’s pissed at Eckhart for welching on him…
So far, so intriguing. There’s then a stakeout at a remote hut, a chase and a shooting in thick fog, in which Dormer accidentally kills Eckhart, believing him to be the quarry. Given the tension between them, it’s no surprise that Dormer seeks to cover his tracks: trouble is, he has an unexpected witness, in pulp-fiction author Walter Finch (Robin Williams, in a performance so understated, one wonders if he was riffing on the equally under-cooked turn he delivered in One Hour Photo released the same year). Williams melts into the part with such ease, it verges on disturbing, given how extravagant so many of his other performances were.
Things unravel for Dormer from this point-on, but I’ll leave the how’s, the why’s and the do-you-mind-if-I-don’t’s for you to discover yourselves, though it’s no surprise that – SPOILER ALERT!! – there’s a prominent character in this picture (well, two) – who both have trouble sleeping… Instead, I want to talk about other aspects of this quiet picture, such as the distinctions between the amazing, striking locations and the crushing banality of the police-work. The people of Nightmute live in what, to many, is Paradise, yet it’s lost to them; they’re blind to the ‘wasted beauty’ that surrounds them. At one point, hotel clerk Rachel (a demure, subtle Maura Tierney) says ‘There are two kinds of people in Alaska: those who were born here and those who come here to escape something. I wasn’t born here.’
In any other movie, this might’ve been the lead-off for a whole new plot-line, yet such is the bowstring tautness of Hillary Seitz’s script (from the original movie, remember) that it’s just a throwaway here.
I’m also struck by Pacino’s acting in the picture. Excepting one incident, his performance lacks all the theatrical pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect, so he’s left a smaller man as a result. His voice, almost a whisper at times, lends him a genuine air of tiredness; of being burnt-out, first by events back home, then as he scrabbles to find a way-out, following Eckhart’s death. His lapses in judgment are all-too-plausible, as are those famous eye-bags of his. There’s a memorable scene, involving a dead dog that Dormer finds in an alleyway, made unforgettable on account of its lack of sentiment. In short? Dormer’s too tired to care. He’s doing what he has to, to stay ahead of the curve.
When Burr starts thinking for herself and puts two-and-two together, Dormer’s face is a fizzing cocktail of emotions, ranging from an almost paternal pride that she came through in the end and relief, that he won’t be around to see her unravel his legacy. His last line in the picture – ‘Let me sleep’ – has come at a high price, but it’s one he’s happy to pay. In short, I can’t think of a better performance given by Pacino since this…
A striking image conveying an idea that’s freighted with intelligence, is something of a modus operandi for Christoper Nolan, but it’s only when watching early pictures such as this, that you see how fully-formed he was from the beginning. It was as if he chose this remake, not only to put his own twist on the source material, but to craft a calling card, showing how he could make ‘small’ movies with a Hollywood budget. Insomnia may only be a ‘police drama’, but that’s like saying a Bentley is ‘just a car’. Yes, there were grating moments where even I murmured ‘Oh, come ON!’ (witness Burr’s oh-so-lucky rummaging behind a cabinet, or Randy’s deliberate character-portrayal). That said, there’s a confident, intelligent quality on display here, that you just don’t get from a common-or-garden hack film-maker and remember: this IS a remake, so Nolan’s options were limited in certain respects. For all that, Nolan wants his audience to keep up with what he’s striving for; he never plays down or makes allowances for them, hence why he’s so revered. It’s true, that his work often divides opinion (go Google for yourself), but in a sea of cinematic mush, be thankful there’s at least one film-maker unafraid to stand up for quality.
A good cop can’t sleep because a piece of the puzzle missing and a bad cop won’t sleep, because his conscience won’t let him.