At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Insomnia “02”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Psychological Thriller/ Stars: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Paul Dooley, Crystal Lowe, Jay Brazeau, Larry Holden, Kerry Sandomirsky, Lorne Cardinal, Katharine Isabelle, Jonathan Jackson, Paula Shaw/ Runtime: 118 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by letting you in on a little secret dear reader: to this day it never ceases to astonish me just how many film lovers both casual and in the realm of professional reviewer like myself seem to be under the belief that iconic scribe/ film helmer Christopher Nolan literally seemed to come out of literally the same rock as Patrick from SpongeBob when he emerged from the mist and shadows of Batman’s lair with the key to get in the Tumbler in the palm of one hand and no less than 1 and a half billion (that’s right billion) dollars scattered in giant piles around the other. I mean I don’t want you to get the wrong idea dear reader: both Batman Begins from 2005 and The Dark Knight from 2008 (and yes even The Dark Knight Rises from 2012) are truly once in a generation slices of cinematic pie that also managed to provide a truly phenomenal view into just how intelligent and daring an entry in the land of movie magic that is the superhero movie truly could be. At the same time however, I still feel bad for those people who don’t know about some of the other movies that Christopher Nolan made both before and during his time working on at least the first 2 entries in his Dark Knight Trilogy. Indeed his entry in the neo-noir genre of movie magic from 1998 known as The Following, is a wonderful ode to brilliant and quite creative movie helming on a low budget to say nothing of also operating as a sneaky and riveting calling card to a distinct new talent who was getting ready to take Hollywood over in waves. A wave that incidentally took the form of a lean and revolutionary 2000 slice of American cinema known as Memento. A slice of cinematic pie that incidentally even 2+ decades after it first came out still continues to break every rule in the book with how it at the same time has its narrative operate both in a linear and nonlinear format whilst teaming it up with astonishing visual work and top-notch storytelling. Of course I also can’t forget his 2005 tribute to old school magicians known as The Prestige aka a series of curves and twists delivered with enough skill to operate on what you might think could happen only to then deliver an astonishing set of punches on both a story and theme level that will floor you every time you choose to watch it.

Yet if there is one that is sadly always overlooked and not given the time of day as much as I think that it by all means rightfully deserves then that one would have to be the slice of cinematic pie I am reviewing today, 2002’s Insomnia aka Nolan’s riveting take on Erik Skjoldbjærg’s doom and gloom Norwegian slice of cinematic pie of the same name. That’s right everyone: even Christopher Nolan at one point in time was not above playing the remake game. Of course at the same time it should be noted that even when remaking someone else’s movie then you know he’s going to do a great job which of course surprise surprise that’s exactly what he did. Indeed featuring a spot-on sense of pacing, a riveting updating of the story by Nolan and fellow scribe Hillary Seitz, jaw-droppingly gorgeous cinematography by Nolan regular Wally Pfister, and powerful performances especially from film leads Al Pacino and Robin Williams, I think it is safe to say that Insomnia “02”, although a bit more under the radar than the other entries, still makes for one heck of an addition to Nolan’s filmography.

The plot is as follows: Insomnia starts its riveting yarn as we see that in the aftermath of a local teenage female being viciously butchered in a tiny little community in Alaska by the name of Nightmute a pair of veteran detectives from the LAPD named Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart respectively are sent to aid the local police force in any way that they can. Of course, despite things initially going smoothly, things soon take a turn for the complicated when, whilst in pursuit of the suspect in the fog, we see Dormer accidentally shoot and kill Hap thus putting him in quite the pretty pickle. A position that Eckhart incidentally provoked due to earlier on revealing that he, following the conclusion of their time in Alaska, was set and ready to go in regards to cooperating in a massive investigation being spearheaded by Internal Affairs back in L.A. that had the very real and quite damning potential to bring down Will’s celebrated career and reputation along with it. Suffice it to say then that Dormer knows darn good and well that should he come clean with what actually occurred, no one in their right mind is going to think he accidentally shot his partner. Deciding therefore to place the demise of his partner on the actual killer they are looking for, we watch as the street savvy Dormer is able to cobble together a quite persuasive cover story to the point that he actually fiddles with evidence and deliberately leads astray a local cop who sees him as her role model by the name of Ellie Burr. All told though, it looks like quite the clean getaway for our intrepid hero. Or at least it would be if the killer himself hadn’t actually seen what had gone down and actually feels like he and Dormer share a bond thus resulting in him now reaching out to our hero in order to become even more “buddy buddy” than Dormer would like. Suffice it to say that a walking nightmare has begun to form for our poor beleaguered hero. A nightmare made up of equal parts a duo of murder investigations, a fixated and obsessed suspect, and a horrific case of insomnia caused by both his guilt and the never setting sun. A group of categories that alone would cause quite the headache, but together might just cause one of the most terrifying slip and slides into madness ever put to celluloid…..

Now I think it is safe to say that whilst the vast majority of film helmers would show quite a high degree of reluctance to have their movie’s “hero” be of the moral ambiguousness that Dormer seems to thrive in Christopher Nolan is most assuredly not one of those film helmers. Indeed extremely flawed men of action have been a trademark of Nolan’s in quite a few of his films and here is no exception. Indeed is Dormer a liar who means well? A cop who only looks out for himself? A mix of both? By the same token is the insomnia he develops because of his inner guilt or is it just a cop having trouble coping with his whole world (mental state included) crashing down all at once around him? Indeed to hear Nolan talk about it you could easily say that, but also so much more as well. The same can also be said for the killer Dormer is chasing. Indeed the man, as purposely designed by Nolan, is a slimy yet riveting puzzle: a lonely soul who looks at Dormer and sees both a sinner and a saint. Yet until almost an hour in the movie, he is still no more than a shape seen in the distance and a haunting almost mocking voice on the phone to the point that when I saw this the first time I even questioned if it was possible he was just creation of Dormer’s sleep-deprived psyche. Yet the fact that he is a real person let alone his presence period is able to do a wonderful job of steering Dormer, and with him the whole narrative down an intentionally slippery narrative slope that is all the more riveting and engaging because of it.

To that end, it should be noted that from a technical stand point we see that behind the camera that Nolan’s helmsmanship of both scribe Hillary Seitz’s riveting script as well as cinematographer Wally Pfister’s majestic cinematography work to say nothing of the electric performances on display in front of the camera all help to mold this slice of cinematic pie into a riveting puzzle that is worthy of even the most casual movie goer’s time and day. Speaking of the performances…. I feel it should be said now that screen icons Al Pacino and Robin Williams both manage to give absolutely incredible performances in this as they manage to spice up Nolan’s riveting and engaging character analysis with realistic conviction and solemn gravitas in equal measure. This starts with Williams who, despite his billing, does take a fair bit of time to come into this. Once he does though, we see that Williams is able to keep his manic comedic style out of sight and mind thus giving his co-stars the opportunity to operate in the same scene let alone movie as him without taking anything away from their performances. Yet perhaps more astonishing than that is the fact that Williams is actually incredible in the role he plays in this. Indeed not only is he quite persuasive, but he is so slimy and actually despicable that I challenge you when you are done watching this to name someone who could have played this role on the same level of Williams. Trust me when I say he is that good and then some. On the other side of the coin, we see that Pacino also does a remarkable job at keeping his own sense of going over the top in check especially when there are quite a few moments where he very easily could have. As a result, we get a performance that, remarkably like our main character, is one that is utterly and completely exhausted due to everything this character has been let build up within him. Yet even in the moments where he does go off in typical Pacino style, it feels less like Pacino and more like an enraged animal trying to escape before he is placed in a cage that maybe he deserves to be put in for what he has (or hasn’t?) done. Suffice it to say then that when this film trips up, in the few moments it does, the dynamic pairing of Pacino and Williams are most assuredly not to blame. I mean by and large I felt that Hilary Swank wasn’t terrible as the young detective eager than everyone else to be working with Dormer, but her enthusiasm does border on overkill at certain points; Donovan is decent enough, but doesn’t have much to work with aside from one key moment in the film which I shan’t spoil that he manages to handle quite wonderfully and Nicky Katt (one of the few thorns in The Dark Knight’s side) doesn’t do anything a rookie actor with a stone-faced-skeptic repertoire wouldn’t do. Yet by and large these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of what is otherwise an extremely riveting and engaging film.

All in all I am not gonna lie to you movie goers: it might be a tad bit more in the realm of smothering and less planned/premeditated than the vast majority of the other slices of cinematic pie in Nolan’s filmography, but I can honestly say that the 2002 take on Insomnia is a truly riveting and quite performance-propelled entry in the genre of movie magic that is the psychological thriller that is most assuredly deserving of being a Christopher Nolan film. Indeed not only are both the acting powerhouses that are Al Pacino and Robin Williams truly phenomenal, but the supporting cast is also nothing to be ashamed of either despite a misstep here and there, the work done by long-time Nolan colleague Wally Pfister in the cinematography department is appropriately dark and doom and gloom in the best ways possible, and the work done on the script by both Nolan and Hillary Seitz in adapting the original film from the 90s and making it accessible both for those who saw the original as well as the vast majority of audiences who had never heard of the original is truly next level and quite riveting work.  To that end, I can honestly say that be you a casual movie goer looking for your next movie to watch on movie night with friends/family or you are a diehard Chris Nolan fan trying to see every movie he has ever made then definitely give this slice of cinematic pie a try. I promise that, unlike our poor beleaguered main character, you won’t lose any sleep over it when you do. On a scale of 1-5 I give Insomnia “02” a solid 4 out of 5.