Christopher Nolan’s INSOMNIA [6/10]

from the opening titles of Insomnia

Veteran LA cop Will Dormer (Al Pacino) arrives in an Alaskan town to investigate a teenage girl’s murder. Chasing a suspect in fog, he shoots his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) — apparently by accident, perhaps partly on purpose. Dormer also has trouble adapting to the perpetual daylight of the far-north latitudes and can’t sleep. Though the local police – including eager rookie Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) – suspect the victim’s boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson), Dormer’s investigations lead to nice-guy local novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams). But Finch has knowledge of Dormer’s own dubious activities, and before long the two are soon entangled in a messy, symbiotic web of guilt and accusation…

After Memento, expectations were sky high for Nolan’s followup. Sensibly, he’s avoided the temptation to serve up more of the ‘gimmicky’ same, but with Insomnia he’s gone too far in the other direction, constructing a solid, engrossing but ultimately over-familiar, over-conventional movie. Insomnia isn’t even original: Hillary Seitz’s script adapts Erik Skjoldbaerg’s 1997 Norwegian thriller, co-written by Nikolaj Frobenius.

It’s as if that, handed a big budget and some very big-name stars -Oscar winners Pacino, Williams and Swank – Nolan was determined to prove he could be a ‘safe pair of hands’ when required. But Oscars are heavy items, capable of weighing down any project with their aura of prestige and seriousness.

This is essentially pretty well-trodden ground — and not just in the Twin Peaks-meets-Limbo aspects of the basic set-up. Dormer and Finch’s relationship is no more or less intriguing than that between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich from In The Line Of Fire, or even Kurt Russell and Richard Jordan from the cheesily enjoyable The Mean Season. But Insomnia has pretensions to higher levels: it’s a long, somewhat ponderous affair, but with no accompanying investigation of ideas and nothing much new being said. And while Pacino is always a delight, isn’t he sick of playing tormented-genius cops? Heat should have been the last word on the subject.

Nolan’s movie is much shorter than Mann’s masterpiece, but feels longer: the second half drags, right up to the overextended, overwrought finale. And the director seems so concerned with giving Pacino (and to a lesser extent Williams) Oscar-bait prominence he ends up selling short the supporting cast: Swank’s Nancy Drew-esque role is thankless, but at least she has more to do that the terrific Nicky Katt, stuck in a cliched ‘resentful local cop’ part.

The films situations recall, but have none of the unpredictably edgy intensity of, Bloody Angels (1732 Hotten), another late-90s Scandinavian cop-out-of-water thriller. That movie managed to dramatise and address the political implications of its material, while maintaining both a psychological coherence and a sense of humour. Seitz’s idea of irony, by contrast, is to call her sleepless leading man “Dormer.”

In terms of a script choice, Insomnia may represent a disappointing step backwards for Nolan, but there’s no suggestion that Memento was any kind of directorial fluke. Aided by Dody Dorn’s editing and some startling widescreen cinematography from Wally Pfister, Nolan confirms he’s perhaps the most accomplished of the younger ‘British’ directors (he’s half-American). In one bravura (and newly invented) sequence, a breathless chase across logs floating downriver suddenly becomes a desperate underwater battle for survival.

And towards the end, as Dormer’s senses are increasingly distorted by the effects of insomnia, Nolan manipulates light levels so we feel the exact contours of our hero’s mental state — just like in Memento. And Insomnia also retains that movie’s subtle feeling for place, as when we accompany Dormer on a furtive middle-of-the-night errand down some eerily bright 3am backstreets.

But these are isolated highlights, and the overall movie doesn’t stack up as satisfyingly as it should. Its hard to shake the feeling that Nolan is constantly having to rein in and mute his abilities, as when Soderbergh got the Erin Brockovich gig. These aren’t bad movies by any means, and the box-office has responded warmly to both – but you do wonder if the directors’ consciences didn’t provoke a sleepless night or two of their own.

Neil Young

21st June 2002
(seen 15th June 2002, UCI Silverlink, North Shields)

INSOMNIA : [6/10] : USA 2002 : Christopher Nolan : 118 mins