The only one of his films that he didn’t write, Insomnia was also Chris Nolan’s first foray into bigger budget major motion pictures. Based on the Norwegian film of the same name, although this wasn’t a shot for shot remake, it still maintained a lot of the original’s themes and plot. Paradoxically, Nolan’s version of Insomnia is actually much better than its source material.
Nolan had a lot of influence in making this his follow on project from Memento, and it is easy to see why, as it is prime material for the young director. The main character loses grip on reality due to lack of sleep (ala the title), women become the catalyst for the plot (Robin Williams murdered out of love, Hilary Swank is a thorn in Al Pacino’s side; his grip on morality), it’s a quintessential detective cat and mouse thriller, and the location provides an interesting spin on conventions of film noir (extreme light replaces intense shadows).
A key element of Insomnia is the character study, and the exploration of that thin line which separates Good from Evil (something he would revisit as a matter of course in the Batman films). Al Pacino’s Will Dormer is haunted by previous crimes (of which we do not get details) and carries tremendous guilt after accidentally killing his partner Hap in a twist of fate that aligns him more with the bookish and unassuming Walter Finch (Robin Williams) than any of his law enforcement counterparts. Nolan squeezes every ounce of tension out of Dormer’s situation and harnesses the vice of his situation as a means to further the plot, a trait that has now become the director’s signature storytelling method.
Visually, Insomnia sees Nolan begin to develop his love affair with the capabilities of anamorphic lens, and begins to cement his partnership with cinematographer Wally Pfister (who he had worked with on Memento). In hindsight it feels that once Nolan got to experience the wonders and awe of big landscapes in Insomnia, he became a much more ambitious aesthetic filmmaker.
Stand Out Moment:
Early on in Insomnia, Will and Hap arrange for a stakeout at the mountainside cabin of the suspected killer. After a short time, the killer turns up and a chase begins, soon leading all involved into a fog covered forest. Slightly lost and tense, Will stalks through the trees hoping for the slightest glance of the as yet unidentified Robin Williams. Meeting up with a local police officer, and then witnessing his shooting at the hands of Williams, Will ventures further into the fog. Suddenly he hears a noise and sees a figure, he shoots. But the bullet doesn’t take down a murdering psychopath, it kills Will’s partner Hap. Discovering the bloodied and dying detective, Will suddenly becomes very aware that he has just killed an innocent man, a man who Will knows would soon be giving evidence against him at an internal affairs investigation. Poetry, tragedy, comedy, irony; call it what you want, but it’s a moment of brilliance.
Despite this scene being lifted directly from the Norwegian original, Nolan shoots it in a way that makes it feel fresh and jarring. The sense of paranoia and isolation alludes to the future of Pacino’s character, the panic he feels is mirrored by the use of framing action from his perspective as a well giving us an 3rd person impression of his situation. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film and shows that all one needs to make a memorable moment is good old smoke and mirrors; early signs of Nolan’s affinity with magic (see The Prestige).
Nolan on Insomnia:
“I first approached Warner Bros. about the project before any script was written. I hadn’t made Memento at that point so I really wasn’t in a good position to get involved. Hillary Seitz was just about to start writing and had decided to do much the same things in adapting the film as I would have. It was important to where the film was set because we needed 24-hour daylight to make sure the protagonist is very disoriented and follow his progression through the story. When I finally finished Memento, I came back to Warner Bros. and showed them the film and was able to get on to the Insomnia project as the director. I then collaborated with Hillary Seitz on several drafts.”
Nolan never went to film school and is a self taught director.
Grab your blue flower and meet me at Arkham Asylum tomorrow. We will be looking at BATMAN BEGINS.