What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!
Last night, if you were up at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the atmospheric 2002 mystery, Insomnia.
I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit by including Insomnia in a series about obscure films that you might find on cable late at night. While Insomnia does seem to often turn up during the early morning hours, it’s hardly an obscure film. A remake of an acclaimed Norwegian film, it not only stars three Oscar winners (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank) but it was directed by Christopher Nolan. Insomnia got a lot of attention when it was first released in 2002. But, doing an insomnia file about a movie that’s actually about insomnia was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.
I should also mention that I didn’t have insomnia last night. I was up because I currently have a cold and I watched Insomnia in a feverish and congested haze. And yet I couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, that was actually the ideal way to watch Insomnia. With its ominous atmosphere and Nolan’s eye for the surreal, Insomnia plays out like a semi-lucid fever dream.
A teenage girl has been murdered in a small Alaskan fishing village. The chief of police (played by the great character actor Paul Dooley) asks his former LAPD partner, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), to come to Alaska and help with the investigation. Accompanying Dormer is his partner and friend, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).
Dormer has issues that go far beyond anything happening in Alaska. He’s burned out and he’s plagued by rumors that, in the past, he was a crooked cop. He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs and, shortly after they arrive in Alaska, Eckhart admits that he’s been given immunity as part of a deal to testify against Dormer. While pursuing the suspected murderer through the Alaskan fog, Dormer fires his gun. When the fog clear, Dormer discovers that he’s killed Eckhart. Was it an accident or did Dormer intentionally shoot his partner? Not even Dormer seems to know for sure. He lies and says that the murderer shot Eckhart.
Working with a local detective (Hilary Swank), Dormer tries to solve the Alaska murder, with the knowledge that, once he does, he’ll have to return to Los Angeles and he’ll probably be indicted. Because of the midnight sun, night never falls in Alaska and, tortured by guilt, Dormer cannot sleep. Add to that, the murderer knows that Dormer shot Eckhart. And now, he’s calling Dormer and cruelly taunting him.
Who is the murderer? His name is Walter Finch. He’s a writer and, in a stroke of brilliance, he’s played by none other than Robin Williams. To me, Robin Williams’s screen presence always carried hints of narcissism and self-destruction. Even in comedic roles, there was a transparent but very solid wall between Williams the audience. When he was shouting out a thousand words a minute and rapidly switching from one character to the next, it always seemed as if it was all a technique to keep anyone from figuring out who he really was. In Insomnia (and, that same year, in One Hour Photo), Robin Williams reveals an inner darkness that he rarely showed before or after. Finch may possess Williams’s trademark eccentric smile and nervous voice but, underneath the surface, he’s an empty shell who views human beings as being as disposable as the characters in his paperback novels.
Christopher Nolan takes us directly into the heads of these two enemies, with shots of the desolate Alaskan landscape seeming to perfectly capture the inner desolation of two minds destroyed by guilt and paranoia. (Neither Finch nor Dormer is capable of connecting with the world outside of his damaged psyche.) As seen through Nolan’s lens, Alaska becomes as surreal and haunting as one of the dream landscapes from Inception. For those of us who found both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to be so bombastic that they verged on self-parody, Insomnia is a nice reminder that Nolan doesn’t need a pounding Han Zimmer score to make a great movie. With Insomnia, Nolan gives us not bombast but a deceptively low-key and atmospheric journey into the heart of darkness.
Ironically, for a film about two men who cannot sleep, Insomnia will haunt your dreams.
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