REVIEW: “Insomnia” (2002)


“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.


Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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.


Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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.



20 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Insomnia” (2002)

  1. Let’s not forget that this is currently the last R-rated movie Nolan would ever make (his only other one being “Memento”). If you ask me, that also makes it stand out in his overall filmography, and just goes to show how much he’s changed over the years.

  2. I saw this way back when and remember liking it. There aren’t many Al Pacino movies I don’t like. Movies set is isolated winter places always have an extra actor in the atmosphere.

  3. It is one of Nolan’s weakest films but a weak Nolan film is still better than a lot of other people’s work and I do enjoy this though I prefer the original version with Stellan Skarsgard. Plus, it was good to see Robin Williams during that period where he decided to stretch himself and play dark characters. Who knew he could go toe-to-toe with Pacino and end up out-acting Pacino?

  4. I need to watch this so I can rank Nolan’s films but I can’t seem to get it anywhere in the U.K.
    You’re review is great – I need to double my efforts, this is a must watch.

    • It had been years since I last saw this so there were a lot of things about it that I didn’t remember. Enjoyed the revisit. Not among Nolan’s best, but still a solid movie.

  5. I saw the original version of this movie waaaay back in film school (Norwegian I think??) – it was very good! 🙂 I never got around to seeing Nolan’s version, maybe I should one of these days.

  6. I watched this a few months ago. It doesn’t feel like a Nolan film. I was watching Al Pacino. I liked it very much. Nolan has a gift for bringing great actors to together and they all seem to gel.

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