Tag Archives: Insomnia

Christopher Nolan’s INSOMNIA

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From the opening credits, Christopher Nolan assembles a sequence that not only clues us in on what is about to unfold but also tells us there is nothing but darkness and despair in what lies ahead. INSOMNIA may just be Nolan’s most overlooked film, and his most underrated.

Pitting a dreary Al Pacino against an eccentric Robin Williams is brilliant. Pacino’s slow and methodic unraveling is a marvel to witness. His turn as the tainted hero cop, Will Dormer is perhaps his finest performance of the third act of his career. He foregoes the caricature of bug-eyed screaming and gives an incredibly vulnerable performance as a cop who did a bad thing for a righteous cause, only to let that deed pull on the one string that can unravel his entire career.

Robin Williams is wonderful as the antagonist who plays it as if he really isn’t that bad of a guy, he just made a mistake, and then another mistake and then another that leads to a web of lies and the death of a sixteen-year-old girl. Williams is the only character we see on the screen that truly understands and accepts Pacino, and forgives him for his misdeeds. Nolan milks every ounce of affability he can from Williams, allowing the audience to like and sympathize with Williams. It’s a rather brilliant move in a film that is such a taut game of chess, you can almost hear Nolan slam his hand down on the chess clock.

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The hook of the film is brilliant, pitting Pacino against his own conscience in an Alaskan town that is so far north, the sun never sets. He makes catastrophic mistakes that lead to even worse mistakes all the while he is trying to solve a crime where suddenly he almost becomes a villain. It is almost as if he and Williams are following the same path, with one immeasurable mistake that leads to a sequence that leads to their respective unraveling.

It’s a brilliant structure that is so complex it becomes maddening. The entire film begins to turn over onto itself, causing the viewer to question there original notions of what morality is; casting complete shades of grey over the black and white of right and wrong.

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Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia: A Review by Nate Hill 

Christopher Nolan has a monumental filmography full of lofty cerebral ideas, superheroes mythic in nature, and incredibly complex morality plays. The one time he hit the road in a straight line is Insomnia, a fairly standard cat and mouse thriller given the obvious boost of having Chris at the helm, as well as two actors who get dangerously out of control, in the best possible way. Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, an L.A. cop who treks out to small town Alaska to solve the mystery of a murdered local girl. The twist: they’re in the region where it’s daylight for a month straight, and if that’s something you’re not accustomed to, it’ll throw you way off. It’s fascinating to watch Pacino roll in sharp as a razor and completely in control, then observe his lack of sleep eat away at the frills of his perception and start to play tricks on his weary mind. The film has one of those narratives that gives us a heads up as to who the killer is nearly right off the bat, in this case personified by Stephen King esque novelist Walter Finch, played by a vastly creepy Robin Williams. He and Pacino do an eerie dance through the foggy local geography and small, gaunt townscape, Pacino looking for clues and proof while trying to hold onto his sanity, and Williams unnervingly playing a macabre mind game, perhaps only for his own amusement. There are shades of Vincent Hanna in Pacino’s work here, the extremely stressed out LA detective from Michael Mann’s Heat. One gets a sense of the same world weariness and feral ferocity of that character, especially in a heartbreaking monologue to the local innkeeper, played by underrated Maura Tierney, who is brilliant in the scene that requires her mostly to listen, a much harder task than delivering any page of dialogue. As for Williams, he’s never really done anything this specific before. I mean, he’s played freaks and villains all across the board, but none quite like Walter Finch. He’s detached in a way that still clings to a humanity he may have lost through so many years writing stories that only happened in his head. He’s both dangerous and rational, and when those two are fuelled by emotional trauma… watch out, because there’s damage to be done. There’s further work from Hilary Swank as Will’s partner, Nicky Katt, Emily Perkins, Martin Donovan and edgy Vancouverite Katherine Isabelle, who just excels in anything, here playing the murder victim’s troubled best friend. 

 Now, this film is based on a chilly Swedish thriller of the same title, starring Stellen Skarsgard in Pacino’s role, and Williams nowhere to be found, naturally. I connected with Nolan’s version far more, the original seeming rather bland and lacking personality, but it’s got a huge following and a Criterion release, so what the hell do I know, go see for yourself. I do know that nothing stands up the hairs on my neck quite like the portentous back and forth between Pacino and Williams here, the icy inaccessibility of the central mystery and the feeling that there’s always something bubbling just below the surface of a seemingly civilized interaction. Barring Memento, which even rose to flights of fancy, this is the most down to earth Nolan has ever been in his exploration of the psychological landscape. Dreams, outer space, damaged memory and morality are for another day here. It strips away any of that, leaves it’s characters stranded in a misty, threatening environment that mirrors their own starkly layered perception, and sits back to observe. Rats in a maze of the human mind, if you will. It’s an important film in Nolan’s career for this very reason; a departure from ambitions grandiose in nature, a vacation from fantasy, and a forceful glimpse at two men with minds holding on by just a thread, like a spider’s web, beaded with dew in perpetual sunlight that refuses to set and give them solace. A masterwork of tension, with few instances of release. 

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S INSOMNIA — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Attempting a remake of any great film is always a questionable endeavor. I can remember seeing Erik Skjoldbjærg’s terrific Norwegian psychological thriller Insomnia at the theater on my college campus back in 1998 and thinking that an American remake would be rather pointless. The themes would never travel (especially the underage sexuality), how could one outdo Stellan Skarsgård, and how could a filmmaker capture that eerie atmosphere in a new and unique way? It was never going to be an easy task, but Christopher Nolan continued his hot streak with his stylish and underrated 2002 updating, which felt like the next logical step for him as a filmmaker after his breakout indie success Memento. Al Pacino gave a tired and tortured lead performance as a cop struggling with intense inner demons not to mention the inability to get any sleep; this is a film that touches on noir (daytime noir!) and the serial killer genres but still remembers to load the narrative with interesting character beats and small bits of surface details that all add up to a riveting mystery. Robin Williams gave one of the best performances of his career as a chilling psychopath who always seems to be one step ahead of Pacino and the authorities – that chase sequence he has with Pacino across those drifting logs in that chilly river is spellbinding stuff, with Nolan using incredible sound effects and expert spatial geography to heighten the tension. Williams brought a devilish smile to numerous scenes, and his unpredictability always kept you guessing, even within the relatively predictable confines of studio based genre entertainment. Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Hilary Swank, and Maura Tierney all offered solid support. This was a nervous, jittery piece of work from Nolan, who would later fashion a more controlled, rigid aesthetic in Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy (The Prestige looks even more unique these days) before moving on to his magnum opus, Interstellar. Wally Pfister’s slick yet gritty cinematography worked in perfect tandem with David Julyan’s haunting music and Dody Dorn’s taut editing. Remakes of already excellent films are rarely this effective.

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