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Film Review: Insomnia

Insomnia (2002; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s now mostly-forgotten atmospheric remake of a 1997 Norwegian filmic murder mystery is set amidst the unceasing, disorienting daylight of the Arctic Circle. Two LAPD detectives are flown into the remote and suggestively-named Alaskan town of Nightmute, crossing craggy glaciers in a lurching bushplane. Similar glaciers (if not precisely the same ones) were filmed by Werner Herzog for his memorable Alaska-set documentary Grizzly Man at close to the same time, and were explicitly characterized by the enigmatic Bavarian auteur as reflective of  the turmoil of the human soil. Nolan is not so explicit, but seeing as the senior detective is played by Al Pacino, it’s fair to read the traverse of great sheets of shifting, impenetrable ice as psychologically metaphorical.

Pacino is Det. Will Dormer (yes, as in the French word for “sleep”), and he and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) can’t keep their focus solely on the murder of a teenage girl in Nightmute. Their department is in the crosshairs of an Internal Affairs investigation that both cops seem to know will uncover some palpable dirt, and Eckhart sours relations soon after they arrive in Nightmute by informing Dormer that he will cut a deal and cooperate with the investigation. With a killer at large and an enthusiastic professional admirer on the local force (Hilary Swank) following on his heels like a puppy, Dormer doesn’t need the distraction and treats both the IA inquiry and soon his partner with contempt.

The murder investigation’s early arrows incline towards the victim’s abusive high-school punk of a boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson), but a sting operation at an isolated cabin among the fog-smeared, rocky shore of an inlet muddies the waters further, both suggesting another suspect and leaving Eckhart mysteriously dead, perhaps by Dormer’s hand. While maintaining compromising contact with a local mystery author (Robin Williams) who may have had something (or everything) to do with the murder, Dormer’s certainties about the case, about his partner’s death, and about his own moral equilibrium begin to fragment under the strain of his titular sleep deprivation, catalyzed by the midnight sun of the Arctic.

Nolan had not yet fully developed his now-familiar M.O. of genre homages, intellectual referentiality, and wrinkles of formal construction when he made Insomnia, and the result is a film quite beholden both to the Norwegian original and to Nolan’s filmmaking influences. Nolan does visualize Dormer’s sleepless disorientation with quick-flash montage shots of clues from the case and from his past, but not in any way that an indie filmmaker fresh out of film school wouldn’t also execute. What wit there is in the screenplay is of the sturdy cops-solving-mysteries type. Despite the hints of disequilibrium and oppressive atmosphere, Insomnia is through and through the kind of movie where the lead investigator speak the words, “I’m a cop, this is what I do”. Pacino wraps himself around this particular cliche with a vice grip.

More of note are a few strongly crafted suspense sequences, including the foggy, indistinct scene in which Eckhart is shot dead and a chase across the floating logs of a local mill. When Dormer inevitably slips up and falls beneath the water’s surface in the latter Hitchcockian sequence, he struggles underwater to find a gap in the logs to surface for a breath. The teasing, torturous promise of the shafts of sunlight between the logs recalls the midnight sun breaking through the edges of Dormer’s hotel curtain, denying him a wink of sleep.

Dormer is a man at war not only with an intelligent, manipulative suspected killer (as good as Williams is, this sort of isolated creep role can’t help but feel unsettling in other ways, given his recent end), nor merely struggling with his own moral compromises. He’s confounded by his surroundings, by the hostile environment that he finds himself in. The everlasting light of the far north and the interfering nature of the Alaskan climate and landscape reflect and intensify Dormer’s own inherent disquiet but are also external to it and are therefore psychologically incomprehensible.

This vision of the physical world as both a mirror of the soul’s violence and a sublime, ineffable mockery of the puniness of human anxiety is an Expressionist conception of the sort made solid and unforgettable by Norway’s Edvard Munch (painter of The Scream, which he officially and tellingly titled The Scream of Nature). It’s apt that the same conception animated first a Norwegian film and then a Hollywood remake, the latter at least being salvaged from a sentence of genre obscurity by not just its auteur’s subsequent mass appeal but also by its menacing setting and attendant resonant sense of anxiety and dread.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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