On the eve of the release of his new film Dunkirk I take a look back at Christopher Nolan’s forgotten classic, Insomnia.
When do you classify a film to be a forgotten classic? When it’s Insomnia by Christopher Nolan, that’s when.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since the release of Insomnia but a quick scan through the credits only highlights indeed how long it’s been, top-lined by Al Pacino and rounded out by Robin Williams and Hillary Swank respectively.
Hot on the heels of his groundbreaking work with genre bending thriller Memento Nolan remade the Norwegian film of the same name before reboots were a Hollywood staple.
Nolan knows how to pick genre material and shake things up.
It’s easy to see why this film is overlooked as it’s the most straightforward work of Nolan’s career.
At face value it seems like your crime of the week story: hot shot homicide detective and his partner are sent on assignment to solve a murder case while they are being investigated by internal affairs. The only really unique element is that the action takes place during Alaska’s summer solstice resulting in constant daylight.
Al Pacino gives the last great performance of his career here as the dogged famed detective Will Dormer. The urban legend here is that Pacino did not sleep much during production and you can see that in every line and gesture, his face convincing me why he became spokesperson for Vittorio coffee.
Pacino’s portrayal of the exhausted detective shows how committed he can be to a film if his heart is in it. After accidentally shooting his partner it’s fascinating to watch him become trapped in his web of lies as sleep deprivation seizes the upper hand.
Robin Williams gives the dramatic performance of his career.
It’s been debated that Robin Williams’ turn in One Hour Photo is his greatest dramatic achievement. While that film had intermittent flashes of that all too familiar Robin Williams intensity, his performance here completely abandons his usual schtick.
The cat and mouse game between Pacino and Williams is delicious; they both have something to hide. Their relationship for half the film is conducted only over the phone; the two only share a handful of scenes together, with their meeting on a ferry being especially effective.
If the film has a weak spot it’s Hilary Swank’s over-eager police officer. Added only for exposition, she’s brought to the forefront during the film’s climax for no real reason other than to add to the drama.
The two main set pieces are fantastic, the dramatic fog shootout where the police scramble to catch the killer, surpassed by a lengthy chase across timber rafting as it travels down the river.
The Alaskan scenery does some of the heavy lifting, stunningly photographed by Nolan’s once go to man Wally Pfister whom has since moved to directing.
The film is strong enough not to warrant comparisons with the critically acclaimed original. Perhaps the relatively short five year gap between the two hurt the film’s initial response on release.
Nolan’s fingerprints are evident, but the scale is smaller.
Some of Nolan’s trademarks are still evident here: the flashbacks, the sweeping landscapes, the booming scores, films starting with the letter “I” (Inception, Interstellar anyone?), but its all still relatively low key.
It’s hard to imagine that Nolan will return to making another film like Insomnia. As his popularity continues to rise, so will the budgets he can command, leaving this crime thriller on the shelf as a perfect snapshot on life before Batman came calling.