In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal from the outset of this week's column that prior to last week, I'd never seen Insomnia before. Much like Christopher Nolan's critics often assert, he's a filmmaker that doesn't necessarily inspire a ton of passion in the way that others do, and in my case, even as a longtime fan, I didn't feel compelled to check it out until it was recently released on Blu-ray, in what must be said is a stunningly gorgeous high-definition transfer. But notwithstanding Wally Pfister's luminous, haunting cinematography, the whole too-clever serial killer shtick had worn thin for this moviegoer by the time it was released in 2002, and the prospect of a remake of a psychological thriller five years old wasn't enticing, even from "the director of Memento."
While that revelation may or may not qualify me as the best person to assess the longevity of the film, my intent with this series has always been not to simply react to a film personally, as in "I once liked it and I now think X," but to see films in a greater context than their opening weekend, or even in the year in which they were released. Some films are poorly suited for the historical or cultural context into which they are released; others triumph at the googolplex and are subsequently forgotten. And given the evolution of Nolan's career and his maturation both as a filmmaker and box office breadwinner, not to mention the immediate frame of reference of Inception's release, revisiting it seemed as appropriate artistically as it did commercially for the folks at Warner Brothers – hence that nice-looking Blu-ray.
As such, Insomnia is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life," because it seems like the moderately forgotten entry in Nolan's filmography since his arrival in Hollywood, and because collectively it seems appropriate to assess his earlier work with his subsequent efforts in mind.
The Facts: As indicated above, Insomnia is a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, and with Al Pacino and Robin Williams as (respectively) the sleep-deprived cop who finds himself contemplating cutting a deal with the killer he's pursuing, Nolan's version grossed almost $70 million against its rumored $46 million budget. While the film continues to enjoy a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it won only one award, Best Director from the London Film Critics Circle, although it was nominated in acting and screenwriting categories from other critics groups.
What Still Works: Even for the generally moribund genre of serial killer movies, Insomnia's concept is sound, and effectively explored: the combination of Pacino's character's discombobulation with his pursuit of the killer only intensifies the stakes of his complicity in helping Williams' character get away, both dramatically and emotionally. Nolan is terrific not only at noticing, but highlighting the small details of both character and story that elevate clichés to impactful conventions, and here he makes most of its oddball turns and twists feel believable and even compelling.
The first half of the film is really what generates most of its dramatic energy and fosters so much goodwill that you feel compelled to forgive the shortcomings (and overdrawn storytelling) that arrives later. When Pacino shoots his partner, there's a beautiful sort of ambiguity whether he means to or not that sort of defines the audience's sympathy for the character; you either believe him, meaning you want to believe him, or you concede this is not quite the great guy whose reputation as a lawbringer is legitimate. That ambiguity isn't a deficiency, especially since it's intentional, and it fuels the rest of the story as Pacino's weary persistence first implodes the investigation and then destroys his confidence and all-around sense of self-worth.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast is equal to the task of providing the notes of a Podunk town police force without undermining their ability to do their jobs in ways both expert and questionably competent. In the last two decades Nicky Katt effectively made himself the king of the *sshole supporting actors, and it's a performance like the one here that shows how graceful and subtle he can be; bristling at the intrusion of a big-city celebrity detective, but as much because of the strain and challenge it puts on his ability to do his job, his frustration is understandable, as if his natural authority were summarily dismissed even if in the context of a superior officer it is justifiable. And Hilary Swank, building her reputation for reliable intelligence and understated but undeniable screen presence, perfectly embodies the underestimated but dedicated and resilient cop who puts things together.
What Doesn't Work: Although it may be an intentional part of the design of the film to feel like a too-long day or experience, the film begins to lose some of its dramatic energy towards the end, thanks to a series of scenes that play exactly like scenes from a movie, rather than the real world in which the rest of the movie exists. First, Pacino's confession to a forgiving, furrowed-brow hotel manager feels like the filmmakers needed that background story that clears up, once and for all, whether or not the character was a dirty cop, and if he was, why he would succumb to such moral vagaries. It also cuts from his explanation of his past to a shot of the manager sleeping peacefully in his bed, which makes little narrative sense unless the story was so boring it put her to sleep.
Then there's the final showdown, which kind of goes off the rails, especially given how smoothly so much of the rest of the movie was executed. As Pacino, Williams and Swank square off against one another in Williams' literally waterlogged vacation house, Swank's character wastes a lot of time confirming to the audience what we already know, but it seems less a product of her unprofessionalism as a character than a break just long enough for Williams to get safely away, load up a shotgun and start shooting at the pair of them. I literally asked to my viewing companions, "is that the most important thing to be discussing at this moment?" Given that Swank's character knows Williams is a killer, the obvious answer is no, but the choice to provide a cathartic final stand over the more logical apprehension of Williams' character is frustrating particularly if you feel like so much of the rest of the film steps in so many right directions.
What's The Verdict: Insomnia is a good film but it reflects Nolan's comparative immaturity as a director, and consequently it only kind of holds up. At this point, that context of serial killer movies and Nolan's own pedigree greatly outpaced the artistic achievements of the film as a whole, even if some seeds were planted with the film visually and thematically that were only later realized with the depth and substance they required. At the same time, it's a mostly-entertaining film with great performances that looks absolutely gorgeous; in which case, Nolan fans who haven't seen it absolutely should, but at the risk of making a goofy joke, Insomnia is not the kind of movie that you should lose any sleep over not having seen it.