Insomnia (2002)

D: Christopher Nolan
S: Al Pacino, Robin Williams

Hollywood remakes of European films have tended to fall into two categories: mediocre and awful. Insomnia is a rare example of an American remake which actually improves upon its predecessor. Released in 1997 Erik Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia was a dark psychological drama set in a world of perpetual light, in that case Northern Norway where Swedish detective Stellan Skarsgård is drawn into an ever murkier murder case in which guilt and complicity are in constant interplay. An absorbing, subtle drama filled with ambiguity, it was an undoubted directorial tour de force anchored by an excellent central performance from Skarsgård, and the film was duly hailed as a minor masterpiece of contemporary European cinema.

The problem with most American remakes of European films is Hollywood's distaste for uncertainty. Whereas many European directors are comfortable with loose ends and character and story suggestions so subtle that it takes two viewings to make sense of them, the transatlantic mainstream prefers its drama straight and its characters classically rounded. Insomnia is a story which relies upon uncertainty, which makes it all the more remarkable that director Christopher Nolan (Memento) has found a way to not only keep a sense of incertitude, but has expanded upon and enhanced the original's discourse on morality and culpability. By doing exactly what American remakes are meant to do; by spelling everything out, the remake develops the plot and characters in a way which extends and intensifies its thematic preoccupations. The result is a film which is as absorbing as the original but which is even more challenging in confronting its central character's various ethical and personal dilemmas.

The action takes place, as in the original, inside the Arctic circle. This time it's Northern Alaska where the murder of a teenage girl brings veteran LA cop Al Pacino (The Insider) and partner Martin Donovan to assist locals including starry-eyed rookie Hillary Swank (Boy's Don't Cry) in the investigation. With more than a whiff of troubles left behind him in the form of an IAD inquiry into his past arrests, Pacino finds himself deeper and deeper in trouble when (spoiler alert!) he shoots Donovan while in pursuit of their suspect. Unable to sleep due to a mixture of guilt and sensory confusion, Pacino is then contacted by the girl's killer, a crime novelist living locally (Robin Williams). Offering sympathy and suggestions of a way out of their shared predicament, the killer becomes more than just a mirror image of his pursuer. They virtually become partners, Williams using his book-smart knowledge of dime-novel plotting and Pacino challenging him with his experience of real situations. Their collaboration becomes as much a twisted game with one another as it is a distortion of the truth. As Pacino's sense of reality becomes increasingly blurred, so do the moral and ethical distinctions which mark him out from Williams.

The generic familiarity of the basic elements of the story give no indication of the delicacy with which Nolan and screenwriter Hillary Seitz have developed it. Enhancements to the character portrayed by Williams turn out to be well judged, spreading the sense of blame between the men more evenly although not without an inevitable degree of narrative contrivance. The dumbing-down of Swank's character from a suspicious and ultimately disgusted detective to an admirer who fights her disillusion as she begins to suspect the truth is less effective. Though it introduces another level of ethical crisis, this particular plot thread eventually allows for a conveniently cosy redemptive resolution. A curious omission in this version of the story is the original's strongly sexual content, which threw all kinds of complication into the characterisation of the male detective which this film chooses to avoid.

Insomnia is generally quite sophisticated in terms of both plot and narrative. It demands that its audience respond to difficult slippages of identification and challenges their expectations in several ways. For example the cross casting of Williams might have proved gimmick enough in itself to sell the film (as it did in One Hour Photo), but this matched with the subtle degrees by which the character shifts from anonymous to sleazy to sympathetic to menacing, mostly in conjunction with the turns by which Pacino's character also develops. Layer upon layer of narrative and character detail continually adds to the moral quagmire, eventually creating a pervasive atmosphere of ever-deeper and more widespread corruption. There is a complex nexus of motivation and realisation here, and the script navigates it clearly in spite of the visual and thematic concern with disorientation. Psychological confusion does not become an excuse for fudging the moral and ethical issues from the characters' point of view. On the contrary, it throws them into relief. Sometimes the search for clarity in the midst of obscurity is what brings the truth into focus.

Nolan's direction is excellent. Sound is employed particularly effectively. It works with the images to evokes a strong sense of the landscape. It also increases the sense of isolation and confusion at several key moments. Potentially gimmicky conceits such as the use of Dolby Surround actually serves an aesthetic function, especially in the all-important chase scene with the sound of feet crunching on stones 'somewhere' in the mist. The director borrows many visual conceits from the original film, including the use of blinding white light and a pictorial emphasis on barren spaces. The film is also beautifully paced. It builds carefully from an edgy opening to become progressively more precarious in every sense. As the central character's accession to his own darker side begins to control his actions, the sense of accelerating imbalance becomes palpable. In one hair-raising action scene, this becomes literalised as Pacino attempts to balance on rolling logs only to plunge into the icy waters beneath them.

Pacino's performance is riveting, but as in the original, this is as much so because the entire film seems to reinforce what he is doing. His initial gruff world-weariness gives way to a more deeply motivated desire to separate himself from others (lest he give himself away), and the character's ever more dangerous mental disarray is a dream for any actor to work with. Though you never would have thought so on the strength of his previous work, he is matched by Williams, whose ability to manage the degrees of change in his character is impressive. He's not just playing a villain, he portrays a complex individual with mixed motives. Williams' performance is as believable as Pacino's, and the scenes between the two are exciting to watch. Neither actor dominates the story and yet both are equally vital to making it work. Support from Swank and others is solid enough, if a little more formal.

Insomnia is a superior adult thriller which demonstrates considerable skill in all respects. It makes for enthralling viewing and leaves an impression on the mind which is hard to shake. Though not completely free of the demands of mainstream narrative entertainment, the film suffers remarkably little from them. Arthouse devotees may sniff and snort, but though the relationship between them is fascinating in itself, Nolan's version of Insomnia is just as effective as Skjoldbjærg's. In many respects the second improves upon the first simply by picking up on threads deliberately left loose in the original which obviously didn't necessarily need to be left that way in order to address the concerns of the filmmakers. Different strokes for different folks, of course (there are still people who think the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the better), and viewers will inevitably have to decide for themselves. Either way, the experience is worthwhile.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.