Insomnia (2002)

*. I mentioned in my notes on Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia that it had grown on me since the first time I saw it. Returning to Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia had the opposite effect. It didn’t make much of an impression on me when I first saw it and this time around I thought nothing of it at all.
*. You pretty much have to begin by making comparisons. Al Pacino is a total fish out of water playing an L.A. detective sent to remote Alaska to investigate a homicide. I had a really hard time buying that. Yes, in the first film Jonas was Swedish and working in Norway, making him an outsider as well, but here it seems especially weird.
*. Much more is made of the relationship between the detective, Will Dormer, and the killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams). With such big stars in the leading roles they naturally wanted more interaction. But more is less.
*. For starters, there is none of the repressed sexuality that I saw fueling the two men in the first movie. Here Finch doesn’t seem sexual at all, or perhaps a bit gay. It’s hard to tell. Meanwhile, Dormer doesn’t come on to the high school girl but rather she makes a brief attempt at seducing him that goes absolutely nowhere. The hotel clerk apparently goes to bed with him as a pity fuck at the end but I thought that was just plain stupid and clearly didn’t mean anything. Except that she was wearing a cross and I suppose coming at that point in the story, after hearing his confession, it was meant to represent a kind of atonement. Or something.
*. That the film totally ignores this element of repression makes what screenwriter Hillary Seitz says on the DVD commentary so surprising: “for me this is a remake of the subtext from the Norwegian movie, it’s all that juicy stuff that was such an undercurrent in a very Scandinavian movie where it’s basically unsaid the entire time but you know it’s there, it’s crackling under the surface, that’s what I took to remake because I thought that was so fascinating.” But that juicy stuff is precisely what is excised here!

*. Instead of this angle, Seitz seems more interested in the question of Dormer’s culpability in the murder of Hap. Was it an accident, or an accident on purpose? I have to say I found this an inessential point in the original — I assumed, as I did here, that it was an honest mistake, and I don’t see where, as per Christopher Nolan, the scene in this film “sustains multiple interpretations.” As a result, I didn’t see the point in playing it up so much, culminating in an awkward scene at the end where Ellie doesn’t go after Walter but instead insists on getting a rambling, incoherent confession out of Will. The film would have been much better without that.
*. In furtherance of this problematizing of the shooting there is more background this time out, giving Dormer a motive for wanting to kill his partner. But where the first film left you guessing if there were something else going on, the extra information here only comes across as inadequate. We can understand Will being relieved that Hap won’t be able to testify against him, but can we really believe that he killed him to keep him silent? Another example of more being less.
*. Yet another example: In this film I found myself questioning why Kay’s friend was so reluctant to tell the police about the victim’s relationship with an older man. Why was that such a big secret? That’s something I might have asked about the original as well, but it never crossed my mind.
*. One more: Ellie is tipped off in Walter’s cabin by the sight of Kay’s dress, a moment that I’m sure is meant to recall Starling’s sight of the death moth at the end of The Silence of the Lambs. Only the dress didn’t register with me at all. How did Ellie recognize it? What was really going on here? I’m afraid I missed something, perhaps as a direct result of the movie trying to put too much in.
*. I’m guessing that the name “Dormer” was meant to make us think of sleep. The town’s name of Nightmute is even less subtle. We are not in the land of subtlety or understatement, as we were in the Norwegian original.
*. Critics liked seeing Robin Williams being cast against type as a psycho (a role he’d follow up immediately with One Hour Photo). I guess he’s OK, though he comes across as more just odd and distracted than dangerous. In my initial notes I had also scribbled something about whether he was playing a bit gay. I’m still not sure. According to Seitz “Walter has a bit of a crush on Will,” but that’s mainly down to his police envy and I’m not sure if it was meant in any kind of a sexual way.
*. By the way, why, on the DVD commentary, does Seitz refer to Walter as a loser? A loner, yes, but he’s an author of a series of crime novels, some of which have even received a hardcover publication. Wouldn’t that make him something of a local celebrity? Or is every single man a loser by definition?
*. Dormer, meanwhile, just seems dazed and sleepy. Actually, he looks like Al Pacino playing someone who is dazed and sleepy. I think this is very poor performance. Maybe one of his worst. And I was preparing my notes on Cruising the same week I was writing this movie up.
*. Hilary Swank fills out the leads playing a bright-eyed young detective. She’s a lot less interesting than the mature Hilde in the original, and again there is no hint of any romantic opening there for Dormer. Instead she is there to perform an annoying plot function and then be sent off a sadder and a wiser woman, having learned a moral lesson. I felt sorry for Swank. Oh well. She’d win an Oscar a couple of years later.
*. It’s nowhere near as interesting a movie to look at, opting for a postcard Alaska (actually Squamish, British Columbia except for some of the aerial shots). The light motif isn’t worked at all, with magnified aural cues and rough editing cuts made to do the work of representing Dormer’s condition. Again, less successfully than it was handled in the original.
*. We aren’t spared a Hollywood ending of sacrifice and salvation against an epic background. The very thing Skjoldbjærg had set out to avoid in his film. Again the ambiguity and reticence of the original is dispensed with and we get a keyed-up exchange between the dying Dormer and his student Ellie. Though I doubt Nolan had a lot of choice. When you get down to it, this is a movie that even judged on its own terms plays pretty slack and doesn’t register as very accomplished at all. But for Nolan it was a step toward a lot of bigger if not necessarily better things. He’d shown he could, and would, follow the rules, which is the kind of product you need on your CV need to fall upward in the movie biz.

2 thoughts on “Insomnia (2002)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Not a film I remember with great fondness, always felt like a trial run for something more creative, and as you say, it doesn’t feel like the juiciest of sub=texts, just a standard thriller with a novel setting.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I thought the original had more to it than the setting. But Nolan (and I’m not sure how constrained he was) had to make a more Hollywood version, which lost the qualities that made it special. Plus I really thought Pacino was both miscast and terrible. Not a movie I can see myself returning to anytime soon, though I’d already like to see the original again.


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