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Non-Review Review: Insomnia (2002)

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “a brighter shade of noir” – neo-noir that eschews the dark aesthetic for which the genre is famous.

How do you make a film noir set in a community where the sun never sets? You get the Swedes to do it, and then you ask Christopher Nolan to remake it.

I love a good mist-erie...

Note: Unlike most of my noir-related posts, this review will include spoilers for the film. In fairness, you could argue that these are the type of spoilers included in a run-of-the-mill synopsis – but better safe than sorry. If you’re looking for a recommendation, go see this film.

Insomnia stands as perhaps the most often ignored film in Christopher Nolan’s filmography (at least discounting his first short film, Doodlebug). You could argue that his first theatrical film, Following, is more obscure – but I think it has a stronger cult following. Measured against the other films in Nolan’s impressive career, Insomnia stands out for one reason: the script. Neither Nolan nor his siblings are credited for work on the adaptation of the original film. Given how deeply and thoroughly the Nolan clan have collaborated on all their other films, it’s an interesting point to observe.

I’d argue that the film has perhaps the least impressive script of Nolan’s films. It has a lot going for it – the core concept is very smart, the cast are downright wonderful and Nolan can make even an action sequence in broad daylight in Alaska seem impressive – but the script doesn’t really bubble. There are some interesting ideas which hit off some of the more common themes of the film noir – the idea that even police officers can’t assure justice through the legal system; or the link between cops and the criminals they pursue – but there’s no real moment that leaps off the screen like the reveal at the end of The Prestige or anything the Joker does in The Dark Knight or any sequence in Memento.

The movie has a Swank-y cast...

In fairness, Alaska makes an interesting setting for the film. It’s not so much a place populated with cops and criminals constantly locking heads, but it is tied to that great noir ideal – that haven that so many doomed characters dream of escape to. According to one resident, the state is populated by “those who come here to escape something.” Hardly a slogan that the local tourism board will ever adopt (“Alaska – where you can forget everything that’s every happened to you!”), but it marks the state out as an extremely low-rent version of McCauley’s Fiji in Heat, Affleck’s tropical home in The Town and the strange poster in Carlito’s Way. Sure, most criminals would probably escape somewhere warm, but – since they aren’t really in a position to chose – Alaska seems a more realistic (if less glamorous) alternative.

The State is pretty much a vast open and empty space. “There’s just nothing down there,” a Los Angeles police officer remarks as his plane flies in. The locale is beautifully shot by Nolan, who again offers superb establishing shots of the area. The plot follows two Los Angeles police officers flown up to the great Alaskan wilderness to assist on a murder investigation. However, much like everybody else coming to Alaska in the film, they’re also hiding from something.

Do you sea what I sea?

Al Pacino is Will Dormer (geddit?), a worn out old veteran under investigation by Internal Affairs. Chewing up an investigator over a phone line, Dormer insists that he victimises real cops when he “never had the balls to be one yourself.” Dormer is compromised old warhorse. He’s made questionable (if not outright wrong) choices as a police officer in order to see the right criminal brought to justice. As of writing, I think that this may be Pacino’s last truly brilliant performance. Again, Dormer can be loud and brash, but he’s also relatively subdued compared to Pacino’s usual leads in the past decade or so.

Finding a lead, Dormer proposes a risky course of action to lure the killer out into the open. He hesitates, but only for a moment – “maybe we do this by the numbers.” He’s so far gone that following the rules is only a remote possibility (“maybe”) rather than the default course of action. In fairness to Dormer, there’s no self-delusion going on. He’s aware of how unsustainable his position his.

Pacino doesn't phone it in...

There’s a sense that he would willingly face a reprimand for his actions, but that he accepts that he isn’t the only one who’d pay. If he were discovered, his whole career would come tumbling down – all the crooks he arrested would be back on the street within weeks. “It’s a house of cards,” he remarks, as he faces the possibility of all the good he has ever done coming undone.

The sting operation goes horribly wrong. A police officer is shot and killed, by Dormer no less. As his partner lies dying, Dormer realises what it will look like – worse than it seems given his partner was talking to Internal Affairs. In a panic, knowing this could be the end of everything, Dormer covers up the crime. He frames the killer. After all – this is a murderer, right? Who cares? Nobody would even mind if the killer was shot dead without a trial. “No one gets too upset when child murderers are brought in feet first,” Dormer threatens at one point.

Dormer has a breakdown...

The movie revels in how easy Dormer’s lie is, and how passively indifferent those around him are to it. Dormer is practically coached through his statement by a series of leading questions (outlining a story, followed by “is that what happened?”). The report into the death of Dormer’s partner is an afterthought. “It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, just enough to fry the son of a bitch for a few seconds longer. Am I right, Will?” Nobody really takes too much of a look at the facts of the matter, and the impression is that nobody much wants to.

However, the killer saw. And this is where the film gets interesting. The killer attempts to blackmail Dormer into helping him, using his knowledge of what really happened as leverage. This is literally how far Dormer has fallen, how compromised he has allowed himself to become. Walter Finch, an unassuming author, can spot this sort of weakness a mile off. He knows the argument to make – the harm of bringing Finch in must be measured against the harm of undoing Dormer’s life work. It’s a cold and hard argument, but Finch knows that Dormer understands. “Do the math,” Finch insists. “You’re a pragmatist. You have to be because of your job.”

Will they have a good working relation-ship?

Robin Williams is great as Finch. He’s not quite as front-and-centre as he was in One Hour Photo, but he’s good. He’s subdued. There’s no sense of theatricality to Finch, Williams is actually turning in a completely dramatic performance. No funny voices, no excess energy, not even any personal quirks. Finch seems like an almost normal guy at first glance. It’s to Williams’ credit that he becomes deeply disturbing when you peel back the layers. He’s lonely and almost pitiable – but also dangerous and sociopathic.

Dormer claims to understand Finch implicitly. “You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fucking plumber,” Dormer explains at one point. And perhaps he’s right. A common theme of film noir is that cops are rarely any better than the crooks they pursue (or, at least, are more similar than they concede). Both Finch and Dormer have a quick wit, and both are desperately trying to cover up a mistake that they made, one which ended in death. Of course there’s a qualitative difference between the acts (although it’s repeatedly suggested that Dormer knew – on some level – that it was his partner in front of him), but – objectively speaking – they are two sides to the same coin.

It's a gripping thriller...

It’s interesting that other characters continually assert that Will Dormer is a decent guy. Throughout the film, we get lines like “you didn’t mean to do it, and I know that – even if you don’t” and “you’re a good man, Will – I know that, even if you’ve forgotten it.” Perhaps he’s a better man than he realises. It’s Dormer who pushes on the investigation into his partner’s death, encouraging the young deputy to take a closer look at the facts. It’s suggest that, in the end, it’s about “what you can live with” and that Dormer is too good a man to live with what he’s done.

It’s an interesting project this. An attempt to make a film noir in which almost every frame is filled with the sunlight of an eternal day. It’s a cool stylistic choice, and it’s to Nolan’s credit that it works so well. Unable to resort to the traditional dark imagery of the film noir, he instead focuses on the harsh, rugged landscape. This is a cold place with stark contrasts. It works remarkably well.

Book 'im...

Insomnia is a great little neo-noir. Being honest, it’s pretty much the only major release from Christopher Nolan which didn’t make my top fifty films of the last decade – but it’s good. Really good. In returning t the film for the first time in years, I was struck by how much of the film I remembered. Not necessarily lines or characters, but shots and scenes. I recalled them instantly. That is the sign of good work right there – a film which stays with you, even when you don’t realise that it does.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

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12 Responses

  1. I’ve always liked this movie. When I first saw it, probably back in 2002 or 2003, it surprised me because I wasn’t expecting much. And honestly, I hadn’t thought of it in terms of noir before but yes, I definitely see it as neo-noir.

    By the way, I haven’t read your pieces on Dark City or Blade Runner yet because I have my own take on Dark City half-written and want to do a thing on Blade Runner as well. I generally try to avoid reading pieces before writing something. I like to capture my own impressions then, later, see what others thought and find out what I missed. In a way, it keeps the movie alive for me.

    • I think it’s not Nolan’s best work (I’d argue possibly his weakest), but it’s still so good.

      I agree with that philosophy. Although only in the period between seeing the movie and writing the review. I love to read up before I see a film, in case I can get a few pointers as to what to keep an eye out for thematically or otherwise. (Not spoilers, but more general points.)

      • Part of my reason for avoidance is that prior to a movie’s opening there is the marketing hype and that tends to set you up for one thing and when you see the film it’s something else entirely.

        In this case (Dark City), I wanted to see what I came up with and then see what others had to say and compare the two. Usually I end up slapping my head and going, “How’d I miss that!?” 🙂

      • I do love moments like that. I am especially looking forward to returning to Black Swan, where I suspect I missed quite a bit.

  2. It’s my least favourite of Nolan’s films. I think I’m right in saying it’s the only film he’s directed that he didn’t write and I think it shows. Of Williams’ dark roles around the same period I much prefer One Hour Photo.

    • Yep, I think the two are linked – I suspect Nolan works best with his own material. Even The Prestige – based on the work of another author – was heavily reworked by Nolan and his brother, to the point where the original author prefers the film.

  3. You’re right about the film being memorable. With the exception of Insomnia, every Christopher Nolan movie has left me reeling a little bit (in a good way). And yet, Insomnia HAS stayed with me. The film-noir aspect is something I hadn’t thought of, but the contrast with the Alaskan sunshine is actually pretty interesting.

    Insomnia is the Jackie Brown of Christopher Nolan movies: relatively underseen and underappreciated, but a solid, memorable movie that can stand on its own as a fine piece of work.

    • Actually, that reminds me – I need to revisit Jackie Brown. It’s actually a great comparison. Tarantino was also working off another writer’s work there as well, and you can tell that – while he’s respectful – he’s clearly not as comfortable as he woudl be otherwise.

  4. I’ve always had a theory that with artists, be it books or movies or whatever, they have several really great works. The lesser works are interesting, however, because you can see in them how the artist is struggling and trying different approaches that eventually lead to that “great” work. It’s almost like seeing their thought process, in this case on screen.

    • Yep, that’s it – it’s a lot easier to examine form in a movie which isn’t incredibly engaging or which maybe has several notes off key. I find it’s a lot easier to isolate certain elements when the film isn’t perfectly in tune.

  5. Never reaches its full potential, but still manages to be better than the average, run-of-the-mill crime thriller. Pacino, Swank, and especially Williams all do such great jobs in these roles and add so much more to this film than you would expect. Good review, check out mine when you can!

  6. Check out this short film I found on YouTube – reminds me of INCEPTION and MEMENTO:

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