Review: “Insomnia”

After a much acclaimed debut with the low-moderate budget indie “Memento” with Guy Pearce, Director Chris Nolan has decided to remake an well received 1997 Norwegian thriller as his first big studio film and the result is good – very good. Many will remember the last big US remake of a recent and well received European thriller was Cameron Crowe’s god awful excuse for a piece of cinema entitled “Vanilla Sky”. Thankfully Nolan has avoided a lot of Crowe’s mistakes and come up with an American interpretation which contains some very strong elements, but the difference from “Memento” is so striking it’ll really send viewers for a spin.

The strength in this lies in the performances, and while Al Pacino is doing yet another tired cop character which he’s become well known for he still is just utterly compelling to watch on screen. The character has a wise yet well tempered sense of humour and life about him, demonstrated in a great scene where he’s interrogating a high school kid (Johnathan Jackson) and calmly chides him over his “f**k the world” attitude. The thing that separates this guy from most US film protagonists is that he’s far from perfect and very human. A large mistake made in the early scenes of the movie he spends a good portion of the rest of the film trying to cover up and lying a lot to keep it from emerging.

These quiet scenes of desperation work much better than latter scenes in the movie dealing with the whole lack of sleep effects which don’t work so well (the whole ‘sun representing a guilty conscience’ symbolic subtext is squeezed to maximum effect). The insomnia effects here range from curtain taping windows to occasional bouts of odd blurred vision, five days of no sleep have a bigger impact on one’s mobility and emotion than what happens to Pacino in this and from what I understand the original was a much darker film delving into far deeper territory in regards to this aspect. Williams makes a surprisingly enjoyable straight shooting bad guy, and the likes of Swank, Donovan & Tierney give more weight to their rather thin roles than they deserve (indeed Swank hasn’t been this good in ages). This is very much a one-man show and Pacino carries it off extremely well with his best performance since “The Insider”.

Another high point is the scenery. Nolan has a penchant for visuals and combined with the Alaskan setting its quite stunning from the glacial lakes & ice fields to the simple barren mountain towns under the light of the midnight sun. A simple chase across a log jam results in a quite suspenseful and effective underwater action scene. There’s also two great shootout standoffs, one in a fishing hut out by a mountain lake, and another in a cave/riverbed completely engulfed in a cold mist resulting in white out conditions. Both sequences are well paced, well shot and quite tense. Nolan convincingly combines these extraordinary natural outdoor wonders with very down to earth low-key house sanctums giving a heady mix of every day reality and a magnificent wonderland.

However there’s some problems too. The pace is ultra slow, I mean it makes “Eyes Wide Shut” look fast so the tension never really ramps up except every now and then. Had the drama been compelling throughout then it wouldn’t have mattered but sadly there’s quite a few ‘quiet spots’. A few elements border on the cliche or tired (the rookie cop whose a fan, the young punk and his slutty girlfriend, etc) and the visuals such as a shot of a cotton material piece soaked in blood become overused. “Memento” had some of these problems too but hid it all in a very complicated layout and structure – in “Insomnia” everything plays out in such a linear way though the problems are a bit more apparent.

This is being marketed as a thriller when its nothing of the sort – this is very much a dramatic character study. There’s maybe one twist, only 2-3 action sequences, and only about 12 speaking parts in the whole production (6-7 of which are about 1-2 lines). Fans of cinema will like it but the film will have a real struggle crossing over towards general audiences with its pace, the general dour mood that gets darker throughout the film, and pretty much the lack of things happening on screen (there’s only one subplot really involving Pacino’s partner and an Internal Affairs investigation though its quite well handled). The ending also seems a little off, much like the rest of the movie its somewhat ambiguous in its motives – though for the most part that works.

Still those with a good level of patience and love for visuals will love this. Performances, the script, the directing, the cinematography, etc. are all very solidly crafted and executed. Its a relatively simple drama which works extremely well on that level, its not one of the most memorable of the year but certainly feels a lot more like a quality Fall season movie than its mid-Summer release slot implies – in many ways this reminds me a lot of Sam Raimi’s “The Gift”. Chris Nolan is a man definitely on the rise and whilst not up there with “Memento”, this proves he’s on the way to becoming a legend.