by Del Harvey
Memento director reconfigures Swedish model with thrilling results.
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Adapted from the 1997 Swedish film by the same name, Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia veers ever so slightly from the original, and in so doing creates a film that stands on its own. Erik Skjoldbjærg directed the original, starring Stellan Skarsgaard, about a police inspector whose insomnia symbolizes something more sinister. Nolan has kept some of that in his version, but has added layers of intensity that lead the viewer down a different path with its own, intensely exciting, conclusion.
Under a cloud of inquiry, LA Detectives Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart (Al Pacino and Martin Donovan) are sent to Nightmute, a small Alaskan town, to help with the investigation of a vicious murder. Why the Alaskan town? Dormer is old friends with Chief of Police Nyback (Paul Dooley), a former LA cop himself. Dormer is something of a legend, with some of his cases being taught in police academies in all 50 states, we soon learn through his one local fan, policewoman Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank). Burr idolizes Dormer, which only serves to boost his ego while amusing everyone around them. While going through the victim’s room in broad daylight Dormer emphasizes he wants to question the victim’s friends at the local high school. Burr informs him it’s 10 o’clock—- at night. Stupefied, Dormer asks, “When does it get dark around here?” It doesn’t in Alaska for about six months.
Dormer and his partner, Eckhart, get into a snit at the hotel restaurant where they’re staying. Eckhart wants to cut a deal with Los Angeles Police Department I.A.; but Dormer complains that will ruin his career. Seems there is a ghost rapping at the door of his past which he fears seeing the light of day. Only it’s always day where he is, so the pressure is unbearable. The rift between the two only grows stronger the next day as they stake out a shed where the victim’s body was found. When a low fog rolls in right as a stranger comes to the shed, a chase ensues and Eckhart is—- well, let’s just leave it there.
Eventually Robin Williams appears, on the periphery at first, but soon blossoms like the guilt within Dormer’s personal darkness. The two become locked in a cat-and-mouse game of brutal proportions, until something gives. Policewoman Burr, relegated to lesser tasks throughout the beginning of the film, eventually emerges as the Alpha dog of her pack, and is just as relentless. Meanwhile, Dormer struggles to sleep in a world where eternal daylight threatens to shed unwanted light upon his own dark secrets.
Having seen the original, I could not help but compare the two films. But, as stated before, Nolan’s variation is very much a composition of his own making. He also manages to throw in several nice, taut scenes, such as the riveting 100-yard dash across a flotilla of logs in the river, as Dormer chases suspect Walter Finch (Robin Williams)—whose character proves he can literally walk on water. Dormer barely manages to escape without drowning or being smashed to bits between the water-logged dead forest.
Supporting actors like Maura Tierney as the owner of the hotel, or Nicky Katt as the gung-ho detective of Nightmute, Alaska, strengthen the subplots. The film is shot with the same gritty style Nolan exhibited in Memento.
Insomnia is an enthralling, exhilarating thriller that features top performances, including a surprise turn by Robin Williams.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College.
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