Insomnia review

:. Director: Christopher Nolan
:. Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams
:. Running Time: 2:00
:. Year: 2002
:. Country: USA

Christopher Nolan's Insomnia is a gritty take on Erik Skjoldbjærg's eponymous film. But beyond a fine cast and stunning photography, this is the first successful remake of a European film and above all it proves how talented independent directors can elevate mainstream cinema.

An adaptation of Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg's film starring Stellan Skarsgård (TimeCode), Insomnia follows Dormer (Al Pacino), an LA cop under investigation by Internal Affairs who is sent to Alaska to help local police solve the murder of a teenager. Suffering from insomnia in a region bathed by 24-hour sunlight, Dormer mistakenly kills his partner (Martin Donovan) in the fog and allows it to be blamed on the murderer. As he sinks deeper into sleep depravation, his life and the investigation become intertwined.

Considered by many as a masterpiece, the original film actually suffered from a pace much too slow to avoid boredom and its Northern European setting might have seemed too "exotic" to connect with an international audience. In a smart move, this remake was set in Alaska—thus not denaturing the original atmosphere—with Al Pacino in mind. While the American actor has built his reputation as the finest actor of his generation worldwide, thus bringing credibility to the project, it is interesting to note that Stellan Skarsgård has been called the Northern European Pacino. In another difference between the two versions, Dormer is not as dirty as his predecessor, a sign that this Insomnia is more Hollywood than arthouse.

Director Christopher Nolan, who's accustomed to describing confused minds (Memento) proves here he has the real stuff by bringing his unique vision to a basic cop story that turns into a vehicle for a very specific actor by creating a film that multiplies cinematic references. Insomnia could be considered as Al Pacino's Unforgiven. Dormer might be the ultimate incarnation of all of Pacino's cop roles. Insomnia might even be an unofficial continuation of Michael Mann's Heat. Dormer is an obstinate LA cop who crossed the line only to catch a sadist who was going get away with his crime. Here Pacino's behavior and stylish approach are reminiscent of his character in Heat, while the cinematography and music are close to Mann's signature visuals and Moby's themes. In the same way, there will no more than a couple of confrontations between the cat and the mouse.

Nolan, totally aware of these references, deliberately uses them and plays with the second degree—for example Dormer means "sleeper" in French—to create a film that goes beyond its storyline. By making Dormer an LA cop, it obviously refers to Heat. But as city is also associated with pollution and police scandals, it gives the character a dirty halo. Then watch the opening scene. A plane flies above the ice in a surreal white light. The ice symbolizes the purity that the white light will bath Dormer with. Contrasting with the idea of LA's over-crowded urban city, the settings here—mostly mountains—crush this urban character. The importance of the light and the scenery signal that Dormer will definitely be changed by them, insomnia being the symptom. His soul will be cleaned up and he will find redemption. Just as in one scene in the apartment of the wrongly accused teenager where he tries to escape through a window but the light stops him, ensuring that he will have to face his actions. Insomnia represents the awakening of his remorse and he will only be able to find sleep once he has made peace with his conscience and found redemption. In a true biblical twist, he will be tested first in the fog (contrasting with the light) in which he kills his friend, symbolizing his dark side.

Nolan's direction is totally in control. The pace, slower than usual Hollywood films, is in phase with Dormer's state of mind but avoids boredom by really picking up in the action scenes. The photography is beautiful and brings some cold beauty to the picture.

Obviously this is a character-driven film. Al Pacino is at his best as a tortured soul who keeps it inside instead of going for typical outbursts. He is surrounded by a great supporting cast, from Martin Donovan (a Hal Hartley regular) to Hilary Swank. In another twist on cinematic references, a quiet writer can be a murderer just as a clown (Robin Williams) can play a killer. While Robin Williams isn't Robert de Niro, his minimalism combined with his visage brings uneasiness to his character. We are thankfully far from his latest movies (and acting as monstrous as his crimes in this film) and when Al Pacino finally corners him, the great actor avenges us for years of Williams' cinematic atrocities.

After Steven Soderberg, and Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi as a lesser degree, Christopher Nolan is the latest independent director to bring decency to Hollywood big productions. You won't wanna fall asleep in this Insomnia.

  Fred Thom

     Movie Reviews since 2012
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