Bottom Line: Great cast, marvelous director, weak story.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Jay Brazeau, Larry Holden, Lorne Cardinal, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Oliver “Ole” Zemen, Paul Dooley, Robin Williams
An American remake of a foreign film. When we hear that, it sounds like a simple concept, but that’s an overstatement. We’re talking about an oddity here. The two most common genres shipped over and re-fabricated by American directors are the horror and thriller genres. Somehow, we can always expect the same results. We’d be very surprised to see a Westernization of a foreign horror movie that wasn’t discovered in a dumpster or a landfill. PROOF: The Grudge, based on Japan’s Juon; Quarantine, based on Spain’s REC; and The Uninvited, based on South Korea’s Janghwa, Hongryeon. When we get a remake of a thriller, we are shown just about the exact opposite. PROOF: The Departed, based on Hong Kong’s Wú Jiān Dào; The Debt, based on Israel’s HaChov; and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on Sweden’s Män som hatar kvinnor. From the very start, we are aware of an automatic brilliance surrounding 2002′s Insomnia: a) it’s a remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller, and b) it’s directed by Christopher Nolan, perhaps the greatest filmmaker exposed within the past decade and a half. Now let’s be clear: this isn’t Nolan’s typical film. We’ve relied on him to put something new on display, and after seeing his entire filmography (save for The Prestige), I’ll honestly say that although it is very dense and involving, Insomnia is barely a step up from what we may gather from an episode of CSI.
The tale is a more dramatic expression of your typical psychological thriller, set up like a two-act play. During the course of act one, Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) assigns a far younger police officer (Hilary Swank) to help investigate the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl. Act two opens after Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a novelist whom the victim was very fond of, becomes a probable suspect–but the believability of that is scarce, knowing that the Detective has been experiencing nights of sleeplessness. If nothing else stands out almost immediately, it’s the stunning cast. They’re all Oscar winners: Al Pacino, who received seven nominations before winning Best Actor for Scent of a Woman; Hilary Swank, who has won Best Actress for both Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby; and Robin Williams, who received three Best Actor nominations before being righteously crowned Best Supporting Actor in Good Will Hunting. Knowing him for his performances in crime films (The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface), Pacino easily meets the expectations for his character; unfortunately, Hilary is a slight disappointment, with her lightweight, Marge Gunderson-esque portrayal…yahh. The real surprise is Robin Williams. He has proved to have talent, and he has proved even better to deliver in his serious roles. We get a real chilling feel that he is somewhat channeling Anthony Perkins’s tour de force Norman Bates–a man with moderately boyish and amicable qualities to cover up his rather despicable side. I won’t give anything too big away, but let’s just say his character is developed very well, though very subtly within just the course of the film’s second act.
Insomnia, as previously mentioned, feels like a two-hour episode of a television crime show, the only changes being the haunting psychological character study that we rarely get a glimpse of on television, and the screenplay’s relieving lack of forensic jargon in order to let us get on with and make sense of the story. For the majority of the film, we feel as if we are indeed watching a pilot episode for an upcoming crime series. I occasionally forgot I was watching a theatrically released motion picture, and wondered who would play the antagonist in the following episode. The narrative doesn’t fully satisfy. On the other hand, it does echo the rest of Christopher Nolan’s work, in a sense that the visuals are used very wisely. The perturbing opening titles, the occasional surreal closeups of murder and hemorrhage, the repeating jump cuts as Al Pacino’s character grows more paranoid, the memorably ominous fog scene. The faint of heart may certainly find the title an apt description of the night on which they view this film.