Last year, with the announcement of Dunkirk (2016), we began a journey into the films of Christopher Nolan. So far we have covered Doodlebug (1997) and Following (1998), and Memento (2000). These two films delve into the mind and the unreliable narrator. People are flawed and cannot be trusted and Nolan wants us to know this. Before we dive into this review of Insomnia (2002), I would recommend looking at the first two reviews. The purpose of these pieces is to contextualize Christopher Nolan’s films and view them one-by-one in order to more deeply look at and appreciate his body of work as a whole. Each film builds upon the previous and with each film themes and styles are developed. It should prove a very fun journey through his films. So lets get back to it.
The very first shot of this film picks up a visual motif from Nolan’s first film, Following: hands, in close-up, covered in gloves, working with items of interest. Here, however, those items are stained with the issuance of life: blood. This immediately raises questions in the mind of the viewer: who’s hands are they? What crimes, if any, have they committed? Why do these opening shots have such a delicate and vested interest in these small, particular items? This visual motif is hinted to somewhat in Memento, in the recurring images of the wife’s belongings scattered throughout the house, but is otherwise absent from that film. Images of small, delicate items held carefully in gloved hands, however, seems lifted straight from Following. Nolan’s focus on these tiny minutia seems to be a way of visually tapping into the mental state of his characters: what are the little things that motivate and drive them as people? What makes them tick?
A girl has been murdered and detectives Dormer (Al Pacino) and Eckhart (Martin Donovan), two Los Angeles cops, have been brought to Alaska to help with the investigation. The girl was found naked with beautifully combed hair and trimmed nails. The guy that killed her took time to comb her hair and trim her nails. He wanted her to look pretty when they found her. Dormer, after looking at the body only a few minutes decides the murderer knew her. Next they check her bedroom. They find a designer dress and necklace. No estranged father. No rich uncle. Obviously they were gifts from her murderer. Next he wants to check the boyfriend. “It’s ten,” says Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), a local Alaskan cop. “Yeah? So what?” Dormer responds. “It’s ten at night,” Burr says with a faint and sly smile. Thus comes the main crux of the film. Alaska is the land where the sun never sets and Dormer finds himself trapped there. All of the emotional and psychological tension stems from this point. The sun always peers down and it sees all. There is nowhere to hide and yet there is a man (a killer) who cannot be found. A big part of this movie is the contrast of the all piercing, all knowing sun, and the very limited view held by Dormer. This is very clear during the first leg of the investigation when a stakeout is held at the cabin were the girl might have been killed. The murderer appears but is unseen and Dormer chases him through the fog. Finally he gets sight of the man and shoots, but the dying man that he finds with a bullet hole in his chest is detective Eckhart.
Dormer’s past is difficult and rocky. Many of his cases are being called into question and internal affairs is investigating his history. Eckhart was their next target for questioning and Dormer knew this. In the moment when Dormer realizes what he has done, that he has shot his partner, Eckhart panics and with a hushed voice says, “you shot me?” Did Dormer know? He lies, we know that, and he says that the murderer of the girl shot Eckhart. Later he hides the gun he did it with. Later still he uses the fun to shoot a dead animal and produce a bullet that he will use to further cover his sins. Is it simply that he doesn’t want to give internal affairs anymore to work with and he wants to make sure the men he arrested stay arrested? But there’s no escape for him because the sun sees and knows everything, even what the fog hides, and the fog hides a lot of things. The fog hides Dormer’s sins and yet it might also be the cause of them. He hides in it and revels in it. Does his willingness to cover up this crime tell us that internal affairs is on to something? Over and over we see hands trying to rub the blood out of a piece of cloth. After Eckhart is killed we see Dormer trying to wash blood from his shirt. And still the sun sees everything.
When the bad guy, the girl’s murderer, calls Dormer on the phone, we realize what is at stake and so does Dormer. The murderer knows who shot Eckhart. Even through the fog (through that thing that kept Dormer from being able to see and do his job) somehow the murderer knows. When Dormer couldn’t see, the bad guy could. Everyone can see except him. Unfortunately the film loses a lot of weight when the bad guy (Robin Williams) calls because we know his voice. It’s distracting, but somewhat forgivable. When we finally see his face we aren’t as shocked as he want to be and thankfully Nolan doesn’t make much of his appearance. Yet this murderer is inside the mind of Dormer, somehow he knows the secret (the trouble in Los Angeles) even if there’s no way that he could know. Dormer can’t see, but everyone else can. This limited viewpoint very much harkens back to Following and Memento, wherein Cobb didn’t know the conspiracy he was wrapped up in and Leonard didn’t know anything because of a debilitating mental condition. Through these first three films a narrative theme develops Following: unreliable people; Memento: unreliable memory; Insomnia: the unreliable self. At every turn Dormer’s reliability is called into question and is then backed up with something we see. At every turn we question Dormer as much as Dormer does.
This film diverges from much of Nolan’s filmography up until this point (and his later films as well) by having a very straightforward and chronological plot. His use of non-chronological narratives usually helps reveal information about the mind of the main characters, but here something else does. Late in the film, when Dormer makes the revelation of why internal affairs is investigating him (and finally reveals the significance of the bloodstained shirt sleeve spied in the film’s opening shots) the woman to whom he is talking makes a revelation. “There are two kinds of people in Alaska,” she says, “those who are born here and those who come here to escape something. I wasn’t born here.” We know for a fact that Dormer came to Alaska to escape something, but remember: the sun sees everything, and officer Ellie Burr finds the truth because Dormer pushes her toward it. Once again we are reminded that everyone can see except Dormer and this seems to be this film’s main interaction with the rest of Nolan’s filmography up until this point in his career. The narrative is always limited by what the main character is able to perceive and the audience is never given the upper hand over the main character. Insomnia is a remake of the 1997 film of the same name by director Erik Skjoldbjærg, and, despite having not seen the original film, I feel that Nolan adequately handled the translation of the film into the west. For the most part I find remakes very unnecessary (especially when the film being remade isn’t particularly old), but on occasion you end up with a film like Martin Ritt’s The Outrage (1964) or Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016).
Insomnia suffers from being a very minor entry in Christopher Nolan’s body of work and gets unnecessarily ignored because of it. In addition to this, I occasionally see it being mocked because it is a remake, but I feel it is an important entry in his body of work because of where it led him. It was likely through his work on this film that Nolan ended up directing his Batman trilogy (2005-2012) and his other, more recent, films such as Interstellar (2014) and the upcoming Dunkirk (2016). This film began Nolan’s move away from independent film toward commercial filmmaking and that makes it an important step in his career. I think it is important to notice that Nolan doesn’t skimp on the film either and instead put as much care into it as he does all of his other films. Issues with the villain aside, Insomnia is a very good and oft overlooked film that I highly recommend.
Next up: “Batman Begins” (2005, dir. Christopher Nolan)