He looks exhausted when he gets off the plane. Troubles are preying on him. An investigation by internal affairs in Los Angeles may end his police career. And now here he is in--where the hell is this?--Nightmute, Alaska, land of the midnight sun, investigating a brutal murder. The fuels driving Detective Will Dormer are fear and exhaustion. They get worse.
Al Pacino plays the veteran cop, looking like a man who has lost all hope. His partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) is younger, more resilient and may be prepared to tell the internal affairs investigators what they want to know -- information that would bring the older man down. They have been sent up north to help with a local investigation, flying into Nightmute in a two-engine prop plane that skims low over jagged ice ridges. They'll be assisting a local cop named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who is still fresh with the newness of her job.
"Insomnia," the first film directed by Christopher Nolan since his famous "Memento" (2001), is a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name, made in 1998 by Erik Skjoldbjaerg. That was a strong, atmospheric, dread-heavy film, and so is this one. Unlike most remakes, the Nolan "Insomnia" is not a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play. Stellan Skarsgard, who starred in the earlier film, took an existential approach to the character; he seemed weighed down by the moral morass he was trapped in. Pacino takes a more physical approach: How much longer can he carry this burden? The story involves an unexpected development a third of the way through, and then the introduction of a character we do not really expect to meet, not like this. The development is the same in both movies; the character is much more important in this new version, adding a dimension I found fascinating. Spoilers will occur in the next paragraph, so be warned.
The pivotal event in both films, filmed much alike, is a shoot-out in a thick fog during a stakeout. The Pacino character sets a trap for the killer, but the suspect slips away in the fog, and then Pacino, seeing an indistinct figure loom before him, shoots and kills Hap, his partner from L.A. It is easy enough to pin the murder on the escaping killer, except that one person knows for sure who did it: the escaping killer himself.
In the Norwegian film, the local female detective begins to develop a circumstantial case against the veteran cop. In a nice development in the rewrite (credited to original authors Nikolaj Frobenius and Skjoldbjaerg, working with Hillary Seitz), the killer introduces himself into the case as sort of Pacino's self-appointed silent partner.
The face of the killer, the first time we see it, comes as a shock, because by now we may have forgotten Robin Williams was even in the film. He plays Walter Finch, who does not really consider himself a murderer, although his killing was cruel and brutal. These things happen. Everyone should be forgiven one lapse. Right, detective? Pacino, sleepless in a land where the sun mercilessly never sets, is trapped: If he arrests Finch, he exposes himself and his own cover-up. And the local detective seems to suspect something.
Unusual, for a thriller to hinge on issues of morality and guilt, and Nolan's remake doesn't avoid the obligatory Hollywood requirement that all thrillers must end in a shoot-out. There is also a scene involving a chase across floating logs, and a scene where a character is trapped underwater. These are thrown in as--what? Sops for the cinematically impaired, I suppose. Only a studio executive could explain why we need perfunctory action, just for action's sake, in a film where the psychological suspense is so high.
Pacino and Williams are very good together. Their scenes work because Pacino's character, in regarding Williams, is forced to look at a mirror of his own self-deception. The two faces are a study in contrasts. Pacino is lined, weary, dark circles under his eyes, his jaw slack with fatigue. Williams has the smooth, open face of a true believer, a man convinced of his own case. In this film and "One-Hour Photo," which played at Sundance 2002 and will be released later in the year, Williams reminds us that he is a considerable dramatic talent--and that while, over the years, he has chosen to appear in some comedic turkeys ("Death to Smoochy" leaps to mind), his serious films are almost always good ones.
Why Nolan took on this remake is easy to understand. "Memento" was one of a kind; the thought of another film based on a similar enigma is exhausting. "Insomnia" is a film with a lot of room for the director, who establishes a distinctive far-north location, a world where the complexities of the big city are smoothed out into clear choices. The fact that it is always daylight is important: The dilemma of this cop is that he feels people are always looking at him, and he has nowhere to hide, not even in his nightmares.
"I didn't murder her. I killed her, but it just ended up that way" – Walter Finch
BBC2 could have picked any film to commemorate the life of Robin Williams. Mrs Doubtfire or The Birdcage would have showcased his comedy chops. Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting would have demonstrated the side of his work beloved by awards juries. Aladdin would have shown him at his most joyous. Even Jack or Bicentennial Man or House of D would have shown off the cloying sentimentality that he tended to veer towards if his career was left unchecked for too long. And yet, instead, it's showing Insomnia.
You wouldn't usually choose to show Insomnia if anyone involved in its production died. It's a Christopher Nolan film from the days before Christopher Nolan was Christopher Nolan. Hilary Swank more or less treads water in her role as Ellie Burr, a peppy sidekick. Robin Williams himself is such a low-key antagonist that he barely even registers. In fact, if the film is to be remembered for anything at all, it's for the fact that it marks the last time that Al Pacino was even halfway good in anything. Insomnia is one of those films that you can go for years without thinking about. The good news is that it's always a pleasant surprise when you do.
"A good cop can't sleep because he's missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can't sleep because his conscience won't let him" – Ellie Burr
Christopher Nolan films all tend to hinge on, for want of a better word, a gimmick. Memento had its back-to-front narrative structure. Inception played with time and space. The Prestige had its film-making-as-magic twist at the end. Even the Dark Knight trilogy – with the exception of its useless final half-hour – was driven by a determination to drag the Caped Crusader into the real world. But Insomnia? It's a police procedural. That's it. It's well told and well acted and beautifully shot, but the bare bones of it could quite easily be an episode of, say, NCIS.
A troubled detective, Will Dormer, goes to Alaska to wrap up a simple murder case but, groggy from the perpetual daylight, accidentally shoots his partner, who was due to testify against him in an internal affairs case. He tampers with the evidence to remove any trace of blame, and then his world really begins to cave in. The appeal of the film, front and centre, is Pacino's performance as the detective. Somehow, Nolan miraculously managed to lash down his compulsion for high-volume flailing, so that all the struggle plays out across Pacino's battered monument of a face. And even though her role is thankless and one-note, even Hilary Swank gets to position herself as the heart of the film – embodying all the innocence that Pacino's character has wilfully flung away. With all of this going on, Robin Williams is reduced to a kind of glorified bit-part player; infinitesimally more substantial than Kevin Spacey's role in Seven.
"You forgot the wild card, Will" – Walter Finch
That said, he achieves an awful lot with the little he's given. For much of the film, Williams is just a voice on a phone; a weary, depressed, heavy voice. But then, when he's finally given a substantial scene, more than an hour into the film, he's … well, he's Robin Williams. The sincerity that he arguably relied upon too often in many of his other roles is still there, but this time it has a sarcastic edge. There's a cruelty behind his character Walter Finch's twinkling eyes, because for most of the film he has the upper hand. He's one step ahead of Pacino, because he's both a crime novelist and a murderer, and his knowledge of detective psychology helps him evade capture.
And then, in the final scene, we see a side to Williams that we'd never seen before, but that's thrillingly convincing nonetheless. Williams was a stout, stocky man, and towards the end of Insomnia he channels all his energy into delivering blunt force trauma to Swank and Pacino. And he really sells it, too. Every punch crunches. Every kick lands. As you watch Robin Williams beat the living daylights of of Al Pacino, it's not difficult to imagine him taking a left-field Liam Neeson-style lurch into actions films. But, obviously, that wasn't to be.
• The key to Pacino's performance, I think, is his ruined voice. By 2002, he'd spent so many years roaring at scenery that he genuinely sounds exhausted when he's asked to whisper anything. He sounds authentically sleep-deprived.
• Although I said earlier that you can go years without thinking about Insomnia, the truth is that I don't. I think about it quite often, but only the log-running scene. It still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
• Everything in Insomnia is very well thought out, apart from one moment – when Swank discovers Pacino's shady past by arbitrarily swinging her hands around behind a filing cabinet.
• I still think that Insomnia should only be shown as the first part of a double-bill with One Hour Photo. Try and watch that tonight, too.