Insomnia (2002)

2009 #33
Christopher Nolan | 113 mins | DVD | 15 / R

This review contains minor spoilers.

The Dark KnightBetween becoming a Geek God with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and coming to everyone’s attention with a stunning more-or-less-debut that managed to elbow itself right up into the IMDb Top 10 (that’d be Memento — obviously, it’s slipped since), Christopher Nolan directed this: an American remake of a Norwegian police thriller, and the only one of Nolan’s five major films not to be on that be-all of film quality, the IMDb Top 250 (the fifth is of course The Prestige, while Begins is the lowest at #106.) So is Insomnia a forgotten classic robbed of a spot, or just a footnote to the rest of Nolan’s superb career?

These days, there’s a murder mystery/thriller on the TV most weeks — heck, most days thanks to the abundance of repeat-laden digital channels — and so a film attempting one can’t just settle for the usual array of clues, suspects, interviews and twists. Insomnia looks like it’s heading down this road early on — an interview with the victim’s boyfriend in particular could easily slot into any episode of Midsomer Murders or what have you — but soon does what’s required of any film entering this territory these days: it provides more. Most obviously, despite the early plot and stylistic conventions, this is not a “whodunnit”: the killer’s identity is revealed around the halfway mark (assuming you haven’t already guessed it from the opening credits) and from then on the film gradually moves into murky moral territory, quickly leaving behind those early trappings for a set of more complex noir-ish moral conundrums.

Al Pacino’s detective, for example, is a man under pressure — not just from the case, nor the usual clichés of a messy divorce or alcoholism, but from a pending Internal Affairs investigation that may or may not be justified, and an incurable bout of insomnia brought on by the Alaskan summer’s lack of night. The pressure mounts, he makes bad decisions (which I won’t spoil here), and even if the use of these plot points was merely that they occurred it would have offered something above the norm. Hillary Seitz’s screenplay pushes it further however, digging far deeper than usual for the genre into debates about the morals of police work, what seems acceptable and what is acceptable, and perhaps even what should be acceptable. The ending may seem to offer a Hollywoodised “everything’s set right then” denouement, but while it’s true that the plot is neatly resolved the considerations raised are not so easily ignored.

Cast-wise Insomnia fares pretty well. When it was released, around the same time as the excellent One Hour Photo, everyone was amazed at Robin Williams turning in a pair of non-comedic performances. The quality of them both makes it seem only natural now however, leaving that amazement as a distant memory. His turn as novelist Walter Finch here may owe something to Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in Se7en — indeed, Nolan seems to explicitly reference that film in locations such as the corridor of Finch’s apartment building — but isn’t as lowly as an impersonation. Hilary Swank offers able support as wide-eyed young cop Ellie Burr, while Pacino does a good job portraying the confusion induced by lack of sleep, aided by some effective camerawork, editing and sound design.

In the end, the main damage done to Insomnia is inadvertently by its director: while it is undoubtedly above average for a murder mystery/thriller, its relative straightforwardness pales in comparison to the work Nolan’s done before and since. However, as with every Nolan film so far, I found my perceived enjoyment increase the more I’ve thought about it since. It may not be objectionable that Insomnia hasn’t made it onto that IMDb list then, but if it is a footnote to Nolan’s career it’s a significant and enjoyable one.

4 out of 5

BBC One are showing Insomnia tonight at 10:45pm.

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