Insomnia (2002)

WARNING: Minor spoilers in the film description

Rating 3½

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Written by Hillary Seitz, based on the film written by Nicolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg

Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Martin Donovan, Maura Tierney, Pail Dooley, Fred Dugger, Jonathan Jackson, Crystal Lowe and Katharine Isabelle

Two homicide detectives from Los Angeles, Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), are sent to a small fishing town in Alaska to assist with the investigation following the murder of a teenage girl, Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe). The underlying motivation for sending them is take them out of the line of fire during an internal affairs investigation of their department. They are met by local police officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who has a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the cases of Dormer, a veteran detective who is revered within the police force. Dormer is unable to sleep in the perpetual daylight of the Alaskan summer and his mood darkens when Eckhart tells him he plans to give evidence to Internal Affairs in exchange for immunity. When Dormer shoots his partner in the chest during a bungled attempt to capture the killer, he claims that the shooting was carried out by the murder suspect, local crime thriller writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams). However, Finch witnessed the shooting and a complex game of psychological cat and mouse now ensues between the two.

This was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up film to the critically acclaimed ‘Momento’. The executive producers were George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh (the director of ‘sex, lies & videotape’, ‘Erin Brockovich’ and others). Released into cinemas in 2002, ‘Insomnia’ was a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film. Although the film has a 92% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 166 reviews, I clearly recall generally rather negative reviews at the time from British film critics. It was suggested that the film was heavy-handed and too routinely conventional, a disappointing follow-up to its left-of-centre predecessor. Undoubtedly this initial reaction was influenced by Nolan working within the mainstream Hollywood studio system with a big production budget – and probably because the film was a remake. By the time the film arrived on DVD, critical reaction to it had altered considerably, which simply attests to the subjective nature of such reviews.

I cannot compare the film to the original, which I have not as yet seen, but it is very effectively staged and put together. The setting is perfect, although when I first watched it at the time of its cinema release I could not stop myself from making the link to the quirky American television series ‘Northern Exposure’. The performances are excellent. Al Pacino, who was starting to become prone to Jack Nicholson-style barnstorming and scenery chewing during this period, gives one of his quieter performances – a blessed relief, having shouted his way through ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ just a few years earlier. Hilary Swank, three years on from her first Academy Award and two years away from her second one, is very good in a role that necessarily plays second-fiddle to the two male leads. The real star here, though, is Robin Williams, brilliantly playing against type, just as he would do again that same year in the excellent ‘One Hour Photo’.

Maura Tierney, who played Abby Lockhart for ten years in the long-running hospital drama ‘ER’, is amongst the supporting cast. The Canadian actress Katharine Isabelle plays Tanya Francke, the less-than-reliable best friend of the murder victim. Two years earlier, Isabelle was one of the co-leads in the terrific Canadian werewolf film ‘Ginger Snaps’. Her co-star from that film, Emily Perkins, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk-on role here.

‘Insomnia’ is an effective thriller with an interesting slant on what would otherwise have been a mundane story. It makes good use of the icy setting in which the sun never sets and the internal conflicts that eat away at Dormer, a scrupulously honest cop gone bad with good intent, is nicely done. It is, though, best not to think too hard about the plot, because holes do soon start to appear it.

The film had a production budget of $46 million and grossed just under $114 million at the box office. The two films Christopher Nolan made prior to this, ‘Momento’ and ‘Following’, had production budgets of $9 million and $6,000 respectively.

Review posted 6 April 2009

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