review by Elias Savada, 24 May 2002

Noble Nail Biter

Christopher Nolan's first mainstream Hollywood production, following on his phenomenally successfully, time/mind-bending Memento and its intriguing featurette precursor Following, is an inspired, albeit (purposedly) glacially paced adaptation of Scandinavian filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjaerg's debut feature—also entitled Insomnia—that wowed audiences at Cannes a few years back. Simply put: wow redux. As expected, Nolan exposes a solid handle on a fairly linear (finally) thriller, so audiences will not need as much brainpower that they bookmarked for Memento to enjoy this novel murder mystery. It's one heck of an absorbing, haunting piece, even occasionally grizzly, that mesmerizes with its taunt story and masterful performances by three Academy Award winning actors. You get acting in spades.

Moving the locale from Northern Norway to a small Alaskan town named Night Mute, the cast is similarly Americanized, featuring Al Pacino as veteran L.A. detective Will Dormer, subtly forced to handle a murder case far off his home turf. Accompanied by his younger partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), they alight at a civilization's-end encampment protected by Chief Nyback (Paul Dooley), an old acquaintance of Will's, in need of a city cop's expertise in unearthing the killer of a local teenager. The hard-nosed cop immediately finds his world out of kilter by the constant sunlight, mistaking 10 P.M. for 10 A.M. In the course of his week's stay, he suffers night after night of sleeplessness, his body and mind unable to adjust to the bright environment. This, more than the rest of the plotting, is what stretches the film's pacing, as Nolan is determined to show us Dormer's ever-drooping eyes, increasingly grubby demeanor, and blood-drained face as he battles the mind-numbing elements beyond his psychological control. (Too bad he didn't pray for rain.)

Whereas the original film merely plops a sexually-repressed Swedish cop (Stellan Skarsgård) in a cultural outpost off Norway's beaten path, Dormer's baggage is emptied of most of the Scandinavian version's sexual underpinnings in favor of a semi-moral, occupational turpitude involving some previous, less-than-honorable police work. This also changes the entire relationship between the partners and adds another psychological level that mires the standout cop in an ever-spiraling tailspin of depression, regret, and doubt.

For Pacino, no slouch in any role, particularly that of a law officer (Serpico, Heat, Sea of Love), it's terribly exciting to watch him play against expectation and out of water. He's this summer's Denzel Washington; perhaps not as ugly, but certainly wart-worthy. As a widely respected sleuth, his strong-willed character is caught with his hand in a deadly cookie jar, wherein Insomnia becomes submerged in a battle of withering wits. Where cat and mouse play role-reversal mind games. The mouse is quite mighty, and cunning—a reclusive local author named Walter Finch—an extremely focused, budding sociopath marvelously molded all the more malevolent in the capable hands of Robin Williams. He sheds ALL comic pretensions as a cold-blooded rodent completely capable of eluding the traps Dormer sets for him, of turning the tables on a pursuer who spilled a secret to someone who definitely knows how to put it to his best advantage.

In upgrading Williams' character for American audiences, he has become a clever, coldly calculating manipulator. And, yes, Hilary Swank is also top-billed (and her role likewise expanded, but barely enough). She gives a strong showing as a observant local cop, Ellie Burr, a by-the-book student of human nature whose role model has just arrived in town.

But God bless Al Pacino, whose dogged-day iron Will rusts with each advancing minute, the crazy light hopelessly over-sensitizing his sense of hearing, before summoning up one last street cop's intuition.

First-time screenwriter Hillary Seitz certainly does a yeowoman's job in cleaning up some of the motivations missing from the original, expanding the film's scope and impulses. Nolan connects all the emotional dots, pushes his cast to stellar effect, and then offers up some stunning set pieces. A stakeout gone awry in a jagged, fog-covered beach, where audience and cops are all straining for a point of focus, is exceedingly tense. While this was more than effectively borrowed from the original version, Insomnia American-style adds a breathtaking pursuit across a swiftly moving logjam, the timber becoming a thunderous obstacle to prey…and life. 

Insomnia is a noble nail-biter, a killer thriller than shows us that the fine battle lines between trusted cop and conniving criminal can be shaken and blurred…and thoroughly enjoyed.


Directed by:
Christopher Nolan

Al Pacino
Robin Williams
Hilary Swank
Maura Tierney
Martin Donovan
Nicky Katt
Paul Dooley

Written by:
Hillary Seitz
Nikolaj Frobenius
Erik Skjoldbjaerg

R - Restricted.
No one under 17 
admitted without parent
or adult guardian





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