First off, a note to all the readers expecting my promised review of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974): it simply isn’t going to happen because TK reviewed it a few years back. For the most part, it has been the editorial stance of Pajiba not to publish two separate reviews of the same film. My apologies to you all, Dustin, and TK; I didn’t realize the film had been reviewed when I promised to do so. I simply do not wish to infringe on TK’s piece. Having put Chinatown aside, I went to review Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), only to discover that Dan Carlson reviewed it a few years back. Honestly, I was rather relieved at not having to deal with those two flicks; I love them to death, but this retrospective has been wearing out its welcome. I’m ready to go watch some different films. That said, there will be two reviews to finish up the summer series: Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2002) and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984). Next summer? I’ll do foreign noirs. Just give me 10 months to recoup.
I wrote in my review of Nolan’s debut film, Following (1998), that I felt that Insomnia is the filmmaker’s “most overlooked and underestimated film due to its remake status.” Adding to this, it has perhaps incurred the misjudged but not entirely unwarranted scoff by featuring two of cinema’s obnoxiously manic performers of the past twenty years: Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Pacino and Williams, since 1992 (the year of Scent of a Woman and Aladdin), have thrown subtlety out of their acting toolboxes, crippling their dramatic range for most films and, by extension, for most viewers. Sure, they’ve both had their restrained moments here and there but the majority of their contemporary performances have been stuck in redline territory, full of “Hooah!” or the sequined headache of Rainbow Randolph. How can you blame audiences when they turned their backs on those actors after being burned too many times? You can’t really, but it can help explain why Insomnia, a film budgeted at $46 million, took in just $67 million domestically. [Note: In the end, the film probably made a profit via international revenue. The budget plus P&A costs probably caused it to break even domestically. Like most numbers in Hollywood, budgets are very elusive.]
In any case, despite those justified prejudices against Williams and Pacino aside, Insomnia is a hell of a film because of Nolan’s ability to reign in the actors and, in particular, the decision to cast Williams against type. For those of you unfamiliar with Nolan’s film or the original, Insomnia takes place in Nightmute, Alaska, a town afflicted with perpetual daylight during the summer months. Natives are able to cope with 24 hours of sunlight; unfortunately for police officer Will Dormer (Pacino) and his estranged partner Hap (Martin Donovan), they’re from Los Angeles. Dormer and Hap have been sent to Nightmute in the midst of an intense internal affairs investigation that is focused on Dormer, his former cases, and the potential of falsified forensic evidence. Their assignment is to aid local police officers Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) and Fred Duggar (Nicky Katt) in an investigation of the murder of a teenage girl named Kay (Crystal Lowe).
During a stakeout, Dormer lures their chief suspect, novelist Walter Finch (Williams) back to the fog-drenched scene of the crime. He and Hap pursue Finch through the fog, ultimately getting separated. When Dormer sees a figure in the fog he believes to be Finch, he pulls his gun and fires. Unfortunately, Dormer discovers he has accidentally shot and killed Hap, who was about to testify against him in the internal affairs investigation. Fearing that his actions will be connected with this potential motive, Dormer frames Finch for his partner’s death without suspecting that Finch has seen the events transpire.
From that point on, Nolan focuses on investigating and complicating the moral compass of Dormer. While Dormer planted evidence in one case, it was done in order to secure a conviction on a man he knew to be guilty. However, in doing so, Dormer gave the justice system reason to invalidate all of his previous investigations. Now, he’s performing the same tasks not only as means of subterfuge but of self-preservation as well. Finch is sympathetic to Dormer’s plight and is willing to play ball, just as long as Dormer forgives Finch by extending the courtesy of framing Kay’s boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson) for the deed.
Nolan’s film is a hell of an experience for a number of reasons. For the noir lover, the relationship between Finch and Dormer evokes memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) or Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). The character of Dormer, a tragic cop whose well-intentioned nature lead him down the path of damnation, is reminiscent of Orson Welles’s Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958). Finally, the idea of a noir set completely in daylight is perversely enjoyable in its own way. In other words, it rewards those viewers who have done their noir homework. Secondly, the performances of Pacino and Williams are some of the best Nolan has ever captured (perhaps with a great debt to the original film and the screenplay written by Hilary Seitz). Williams, his kind eyes and pleasant delivery, both lulls us into a sense that he’s somehow innocent while also adding a significant creep factor. Pacino also keeps his mania in check, providing the opportunity for the film to capitalize on form to establish his character. For instance, Nolan’s editor (Dody Dorn) and cinematographer (Wally Pfister) use abrupt shifts in rack-focus to capture the fraying of Dormer’s psychosis brought on by lack of sleep and morally dubious actions.
If Insomnia has detractors, it’s because it is surprisingly linear and less-cerebral than Nolan’s other films. Sure, there’s some play with flashbacks but the film does not embrace the “gimmicks” of Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), or Inception (2010). That makes the film conventional, at least in comparison with his other films, but it also provides an example of his breadth. Sure, the film is another instance of the filmmaker’s comfort in the thriller/crime genre, perhaps overly so, but allegations that he is unable to provide characterization or to push his actors towards noteworthy performances are provided with a just retort here. All in all, Insomnia is a prime example in not judging a book by its cover.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.