“Insomnia” holds a unique place in Christopher Nolan’s stellar filmography. It stands as Nolan’s third film and the only movie on his resume that￼ he didn’t write or co-write. Instead Hillary Seitz penned the script which was based on a 1997 Norwegian crime thriller by Erik Skjoldbjærg. But this doesn’t feel like a run-of-the-mill remake. Nolan takes Skjoldbjærg’s film and offers a fresh new interpretation. The results are pretty great.
Nolan opens the film with a stunning title sequence showing a seaplane flying over the jagged Alaskan ice-scape. It’s beautiful yet foreboding terrain. Then the plane curls around a lush green mountain into a bay where smokestacks reveal the first sign of man’s handprint. The plane lands on the water’s surface and eases up to the dock of Nightmute, a remote timber town and the self-anointed Halibut Fishing Capitol of the World. The entire sequence is an early indicator of the incredible cinematic eye Nolan would quickly become known for.
Out of the plane steps two Los Angeles homicide detectives, Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). They’ve been sent to Nightmute to assist the town’s police chief (who happens to be an old colleague) with a murder case involving a teenage girl who was found beaten to death. They are greeted by Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), an enthusiastic young detective and a bonafide fangirl when it comes to Dormer’s work.
Turns out Dormer and Eckhart bring a little baggage with them. Back home internal affairs is building a corruption case against them and much to Dormer’s chagrin Eckhart is ready to cut a deal to save himself from jail. This instantly drives a wedge between partners, but they still must work together to track down Nightmute killer. So Dormer quickly puts together a profile and is soon setting a trap at a remote lake house. But the mysterious suspect notices the cops and escapes into a dense fog bank. Dormer pursues only to get disoriented in the fog. He fires at a silhouette ￼thinking it’s the killer, but it turns out to be Hap who dies in Dormer’s arms.
It’s here that the film makes an unexpected shift. Fearing the truth will strengthen the I.A.’s case against him, Dormer fudges the facts, blaming the suspect for killing his partner and working hard to sell his story. It leads to a series of shrewdly dishonest choices and actions that further compromise his integrity. Meanwhile his guilty conscience combined with the slyly haunting 24-hour Alaskan daylight leads to one sleepless night after another. Dormer careens towards exhaustion, trying to cover his tracks while still hunting a killer on the loose.
Under Nolan, “Insomnia” turns out to be much more than a ‘find the killer’ thriller. It fact, we learn the murderer’s identity about halfway through leading to a battle of wits between a compromised detective and a meticulous psychopath. There are only a handful of action sequences, but one of the film’s best scenes is a thrilling foot chase that ends up crossing a floating timber yard. It’s impeccably shot and finishes with a terrifying….splash.
A grizzled Pacino is the film’s ace in the hole. His face is an emotionally blank canvas revealing a perpetual world-weariness that only worsens with his lack of sleep. Portraying a seasoned police detective is nothing new for him. But here he gives us a man crumbling under the weight of his sins. It’s vintage Pacino. And Robin Williams is a scene-stealer playing a crime novelist with a special connection to the case. It’s a performance that reminds us of how great Williams could be outside of his comedy comfort zone.
“Insomnia” doesn’t have the time-bending storylines or extravagant set pieces that Christopher Nolan films would become known for. It doesn’t need them. It’s pretty much a straightforward crime thriller but with some intelligent character twists that push things in unexpected directions. And with such strong performances and a budding top-tier director behind the camera, this was guaranteed to be more than some one-note remake.
VERDICT – 4 STARS