|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 15 October 2002|
Released theatrically earlier this year, "Insomnia" is a keenly intelligent thriller with some great textured details that give it a distinctive, enveloping atmosphere. Adapted from a 1998 Norwegian thriller (which is in turn adapted from a novel), "Insomnia" puts a famed big-city homicide detective in the middle of nowhere on a murder case, where old questionable judgment, new tragedy and complications threaten to destroy him in the course of doing his job. Adding to the detective’s woes is the fact that he suffers from insomnia, which is considerably worsened by his new environment – a corner of the world so near the Arctic Circle that at this time of year, there is sunlight 24 hours a day.
Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhardt (Martin Donovan) are summoned to the tiny town of Nightmute, Alaska by the local police chief (Paul Dooley), an old colleague who has both his own and Will’s best interests at heart. Nightmute has never seen anything like the mysterious beating death of a pretty young high school student and can indeed use Will’s expertise – but Will is also the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation back home in Los Angeles and seems glad for the respite. Hap, worried about his own position, is prepared to testify against Will, putting a considerable strain on their partnership. Will comes up with a clever trap for the local killer, but something goes very wrong at the scene (a reading of the chapter titles on the DVD case reveals exactly what happens), leaving the detective in a precarious position.
"Insomnia" is one of those mysteries that is less a whodunit about what has already happened – the fact that Robin Williams is second-billed and doesn’t show up until Chapter 15 suggests what his role will be – than what will happen next. Pacino makes us feel Will’s bone-deep exhaustion, giving the character the look of someone who is peering out at the world through a thickening haze of physical strain. The forbidding splendor of the scenery (shot in Canada) and a subtle, cool sound effect that kicks in whenever we are drawn into Will’s head combine to give us a sense of the disorienting weariness he experiences as he tries to sort out the evidence and his options.
Director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Hillary Seitz take a quiet, low-key approach that makes the world of "Insomnia" thoroughly persuasive, so that the brief hallucinatory flashes caused by Will’s sleep deprivation are all the more startling. There is a quality of daylight nightmare to the proceedings that will feel authentic to anybody who has ever stayed up all night and faced a hairy situation the next morning with spent body and mind. The dialogue flows easily and the character behavior makes sense – the story of how and why the murder took place is not one most will anticipate, but it rings all too sadly true in human terms.
Williams excels at being both pathetic and creepy – his feel for his character’s self-justification is unerring. Hilary Swank is affecting as a rookie detective on the force whose admiration for Will borders on hero-worship (Swank amusingly notes on her audio commentary track that her own admiration for Pacino stood her in good stead).
Picture on the DVD is beautiful, with the extra-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio used to give us the scope of the vast, cold wilderness surrounding a set of very specific events in a very small corner of the map, making for a good, deliberate metaphor – like clues, the characters and their turf are easy to overlook if one is not carefully seeking them out. Chapter 1 features breathtaking aerial shots of a small plane flying over a landscape of glaciers and there are wonderfully balanced contrasts within a single shot in Chapter 18, with a shadowed patio on the left side of the screen and a brightly-lit, silvery parking lot and mountain range beyond on the right. There is an abrupt tint change in Chapter 8 on a cut between shots, but this looks as though it is part of the original print rather than a flaw in the DVD transfer.
Sound is for the most part subdued but realistic. Besides the aforementioned aural effect signaling Will’s fatigue, there are occasional discrete sounds that give dimension to the scenes, like a car driving away through the right main in Chapter 5 and uncommonly muted gunshots in Chapters 8 and 9. Chapter 18 integrates the score with the ambient sounds, contrasting drums and running footsteps that turn into a surprising discrete surround effect in the rears as a character is unexpectedly submerged in icy water. Chapter 28 makes windshield wipers sound like distant gunfire and the spare, mournful score by David Julyan makes a powerful contribution throughout.
It must be said that the sound on the special features is sometimes lower than desirable – a conversation between director Nolan and star Pacino is pitched so softly that it requires a substantial volume adjustment to be truly audible, and dialogue in the deleted scenes is even quieter. The audio commentaries are arranged in what is arguably a refreshing manner, cutting ahead to scenes where the speakers actually have something to say instead of just letting the movie run with long unremarked sections. Screenwriter Seitz is particularly likeable and informative, happily delineating the differences between the original film and this English-language remake, and Swank is very personable. Editor Dody Dorn displays a sharp grasp of character in her explanations of why certain scenes were recut for different emphasis.
The commentary by director Nolan is arranged in innovative fashion – rather than having the filmmaker simply talk over the movie, the scenes have been rearranged in order of shooting, giving us a much greater sense of how the movie was made and where the production company was for each sequence, so that we feel involved ourselves.
"Insomnia" is a powerful piece of filmmaking, an engrossing thriller – and a DVD with some very cool extras. It comes highly recommended.