Film Reviews The Great Christopher Nolan Film Re-Watch

The Great Christopher Nolan Film Re-Watch! Day 3: Insomnia

In honor of the release of the new Superman movie, we’ve decided to examine all eight of Christopher Nolan’s films, from Following to The Dark Knight Rises. Each day, We Minored in Film’s own Julianne Ramsey will discuss and examine one of Nolan’s movies, leading up to the June 14th release of Man of Steel.  Granted, Christopher Nolan only produced Man of Steel whereas Zack Snyder directed it (although Nolan was on set from time to time).  However, Nolan’s influence on the film is still where the movie’s publicity emphasis has been placed.  So, that’s where we went with it.  

I am going to attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible, because I think Nolan’s films are best enjoyed without prior knowledge of the paths they take. Yet there may be times in which I want to talk about a certain twist or plot development, and I will do so. What that basically boils down to is: Be warned. Spoilers may be present, but they will be minimal.

Film: Insomnia (2002)


Insomnia, a remake of a Norwegian thriller of the same name, was Nolan’s first foray into studio filmmaking. Now he had a budget and major stars (namely, Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank) at his disposal. Set in Alaska, Insomnia initially presents itself as a standard police procedural. Pacino and his partner are called to Alaska to investigate a teenage girl’s murder, and the early scenes make for a standard, if well-acted, thriller. We learn Pacino’s partner is planning on turning evidence against him, but a corrupt cop who doesn’t play by the rules is hardly a novelty in a police-driven thriller. However, the movie takes the police thriller formula and turns it on its head. There is constant daylight in Alaska and Pacino finds himself unable to sleep and growing more ragged and less in control as the investigation wears on. They find the murderer, he gives chase, Pacino thinks he sees the killer approaching him, and opens fire, only to realize it is his partner he has shot.

"I promise, this isn't what it looks like."
“I promise, this isn’t what it looks like.”

Pacino conceals the evidence, making it appear that the pursued killer murdered his partner, but one person knows the truth: the killer they are pursuing. What follows is an extraordinarily effective cat-and-mouse, psychological thriller.

Check out the scene of the chase with devastating consequences below:

Remakes are difficult undertakings, because by their very nature, they feel somewhat unnecessary. After all, if a story has already been told effectively on film, what’s the point of telling it again? Nolan sidesteps this issue by making the movie feel sufficiently different from the effectively tense Norwegian original. Where the original film presented a protagonist, played by the infamously intense Stellan Skarsgaard, as an ambiguous, sometimes unlikable, character, Nolan chooses to keep the viewer’s sympathies with Pacino, even as his actions become increasingly morally murky. The original presents some doubt about whether or not the main character really did mistake the his partner in the shootout.

Pacino, in his last great film performance, remains a sympathetic, if sullied, protagonist. There’s never any real question his partner’s death was a tragic accident, and his increasingly weary, beaten down performance here is mesmerizing and haunting. Pacino can be an over-the-top screen personality if improperly directed, but he’s brilliant here. His tired, edgy, increasingly anxiety-ridden performance is electrifying on screen. He’s forced into compicity with  the serial killer he’s pretending to investigate, and as the noose gets tighter and tighter around his neck, he becomes more and more desperate.

"Look, Al, I think we got off on the wrong foot here..."
“Look, Al, I think we got off on the wrong foot here…”

Swank, as the admiring cop who begins to doubt Pacino’s versions of events, serves as a reminder of the actions that haunt him and the eager, noble cop he once was.

Robin Williams, playing another sinister, malicious character in the same year he played the disturbed lead in the thriller One Hour Photo, is effective in both films but his role here is the more interesting of the two. His character is not an evil boogey-man. He is definitely the antagonist and is definitely closer to evil than good. However, there’s more to his character revealed through his conversations with Pacino. Williams knows Pacino has committed the crime and he calls him to torment him with that knowledge, but he seems to also call because he is lonely. He has a secret no one else knows, just as Pacino does. He seeks him out for connection as much as torment, and Pacino, with his desire to discuss his transgression combined with his fear Williams will turn him in and his sleep-deprived mind, continues to indulge him conversations.

Check out this phone conversation between Pacino and Williams:

They develop an almost sybmiotic relationship, and by the end it becomes clear that one may no longer be able to exist without the other.

"Look, we could get a drink later, compare kills. You know, guys' stuff."
“Look, we could get a drink later, compare kills. You know, guys’ stuff.”

While it doesn’t deal in the fractured, non-linear narratives that had previously been Nolan’s stock and trade (and would be again in later films), it’s a brilliant, psychological thriller that proves Nolan can make a smart, riveting thriller even within the studio system.

Check out a trailer below:

Insomnia is available to purchase through streaming services (free to Amazon Prime members) and on DVD and Blu-ray.

So, what do you think? Are you a fan of the film? Do you prefer the original? Do you love, or hate, them both? Let us know in the comments!

Next Up in the Great Christopher Nolan Film Re-Watch: Batman Begins, in which Christian Bale adopts a growl voice for Batman which some people still cannot get past.

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