Insomnia is the third feature film for filmmaker Christopher Nolan and gives him a bigger playground with a trio of Oscar winners.
This is the only film in Nolan’s career that he didn’t write. One, it is a remake of an earlier Norwegian film. Two, Nolan has his first studio film and a medium-sized budget. Slowly but surely, everything is coming into place for taking his career to the next level with The Dark Knight Trilogy. If not for Steven Soderbergh, Nolan’s directorial career might have proceeded differently. Until Soderbergh intervened, Nolan couldn’t even land a meeting with the studio. Even though it’s a remake and Nolan didn’t write the script (Hillary Seitz did), it’s the most underrated in his entire filmography and one of his “most personal films in terms of what it was to make it” per Nolan’s comments in The Nolan Variations. That being said, Nolan gave notes to Seitz while also rewriting the script himself and didn’t ask for writing credit.
A pair of Los Angeles homicide detectives, Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), are investigating Kay Connell’s (Crystal Lowe) murder in Alaska at the request of Chief Nyback (Paul Dooley). Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), a local detective, goes along for the ride in the fishing town. Things become really interesting–or awkward–when the detectives bait the murderer to the crime scene. What should have enabled them to arrest someone turned into Dormer accidentally shooting Eckhart, thinking it was the killer. It opens up a whole another can of worms on top of the current murder investigation because this puts Burr in charge of a shooting investigation. Adding another layer to the situation is that Eckhart was going to testify against Dormer regarding a previous case.
Dormer believes the main suspect in the murder to be mystery writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams). Between insomnia, sun, and lighting, Dormer is very much out of it while pursuing Finch. It’s a contributing factor to Dormer killing Eckhart even if it’s supposed to look like an accident. Ultimately, Finch and Dormer will kill each other by the end of the film. Nolan shot two endings at the studio’s request but the plan had always been to kill off Dormer at the end. With so much guilt on Dormer’s conscience, there’s no other way to end the film.
Insomnia is more than just a simple whodunit thriller because there’s also a question of how and why. It goes without saying that anyone who watched the original film is already going to be familiar with the story. But for others, it’s a story that is entirely new. It’s a weird feeling when the cop investigating a murder feels guiltier than the person who committed the crime but here we are. In a way, the film is in the vein of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Finch’s behavior reminds me a lot of what happens in Strangers on a Train.
There are other challenges impacting the film, too. These are more in terms of aesthetics. How do you make Dormer look tired all the time? This certainly cannot be an easy feat. Meanwhile, cinematographer Wally Pfister certainly did the research when it came to filming the fog. Not making things easy on production was the weather itself with rain and cloudiness. Pfister’s work goes hand in hand with production designer Nathan Crowley’s work on the film. Crowley’s design work lends it an expressionist feel.
On the acting side of things, Al Pacino certainly puts the work as he plays yet another cop on the screen. It doesn’t matter which film he is starring in or how large the role is because he’s always putting on a masterclass. What interests me is the casting of Robin Williams in a role against type. I mean, you’re casting him as a bad guy! Right off the bat, filmmakers immediately have me rooting against someone that I, in my heart, have a tough time to root against. Regardless, Williams does a superb job in the role and I wish he were still with us today.
Insomnia may be an underrated Christopher Nolan film but Al Pacino and Robin Williams elevate it to the next level and make audiences forget that it’s an English-language remake.
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
SCREENWRITER: Hillary Seitz
CAST: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Paul Dooley
Warner Bros. released Insomnia in theaters on May 24, 2002. Grade: 4/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.