"I can't judge. There are two kinds of people in Alaska: those who were born here, and those who come here to escape something. I wasn't born here."—Rachel (Maura Tierney)
Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) cannot sleep. He is under investigation for corruption and about to be betrayed by his own partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). To avoid scrutiny, Dormer and Hap head up to Nightmute, Alaska. The hazy, organic world of Nightmute, wrapped in damp mist, offers to hide all secrets.
Well, almost all secrets. As Chief Nyback (Paul Dooley) remarks, Nightmute offers "good guys, bad guys, but a lot less public relations. It's simple. Except for this." The "this" in question is the methodical murder of a teenage girl. And Dormer's accidental shooting (or was it assassination?) of Hap in a surreal fog. And the shady relationship between the girl's killer (Robin Williams) and Dormer: two men with secrets to hide, guilty consciences, and eyes that refuse to close.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas characterizes the condition of insomnia as an awareness of the presence of the Other, lurking at the edges of our vision: "Vigilance without end. From the moment one is riveted there, one loses all notion of a starting or finishing point. The present is welded to the past, is entirely the heritage of that past: it renews nothing. It is always the same present or the same past that endures" (Time and the Other 48). For Will Dormer, whose very name suggests both effort (the will) and stasis (dormancy), the condition of a single moment is played over and over and over. But the moment itself is not crucial: it is merely a landmark along his decline. Pulling that trigger was the culmination of hours—weeks—of weariness. His betrayals, the hints of his corruption, are gnawing at him. And in turn, he has been betrayed by the very soul closest to him. When Dormer pulls the trigger in the fog, is he conscious or is he sleepwalking?
Insomnia, Christopher Nolan's remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller, is a detective story. And like all detective stories, it is about watching. In Nightmute, the sun never seems to set: surveillance is omnipresent. Dormer watches, gathering clues. In turn, he is watched—by Hap, by Internal Affairs, by local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), and by Walter Finch, the killer himself. When Dormer first examines the murder victim, he seems resigned to another manhunt for a sociopath: "He crossed the line, and he didn't even blink."
But Walter Finch does blink. Guilt or something else ("It's not guilt. I never meant to do it. It's like awareness," he tells Dormer and perhaps his own conscience) causes him to retreat, to look to Dormer for a kindred soul who also understands the fragility of life. Dormer blinks back, tortured by his own sins, and the ethical connection is made. Both men become responsible for one another—at once protective and ready to betray—as the fog over their lives begins to clear.
For any other director, Insomnia would be considered a triumph. Its ethical complexities unravel over subsequent viewings in a similar way to, say, another great recent neo-noir like Memento. But oddly, Memento is also a product of the emerging talent of Christopher Nolan, and as good as Insomnia is, it still feels a bit like a major studio release rather than the sort of risky little production that Memento was. It is hard to watch Al Pacino, or fellow Oscar winners Williams and Swank, without thinking, "My, what good performances those Oscar winners are giving." And like a traditional studio picture, the end gets wrapped up a bit too neatly. But those minor flaws aside, Insomnia stands as probably the best detective thriller of the year. Christopher Nolan has no reason to be disappointed in his move to the big time.
Even with a major studio and big stars behind him, Nolan treats the DVD release of Insomnia with the same quirky sense of style that he treated the recent upgraded release of Memento. Of course, this is a brand new film, so the warm anamorphic transfer and 5.1 soundtrack, both of which highlight Nolan's careful use of landscape to create mood, come as no surprise. But the supplements included on the disc are quite engaging. In an unusual move, Nolan offers a commentary track structured in order of the film's shooting sequence, running without credits and with subtitles to identify shooting day and scene. While he is very proficient at explaining the details of the production, he seems to brighten up when analyzing the characters and the actors' strategies in bringing these aimless souls to life. For Nolan, like his mentor Hitchcock, technique only seems meaningful when used to develop characters and propel the story. A second commentary track, with Hillary Swank, writer Hillary Seitz, director of photography Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, and editor Dody Dorn, actually clocks in at a brisk 41 minutes. The disc skips over the empty spaces and only runs scenes for which there is commentary, and you can play each contributors' segments individually or as a combined track. Because this is a condensed version of the film, nobody in the group feels obligated to pad for time, so the comments are always concise and pertinent. Seitz is strong on themes, while Pfister and Dorn are more technical (but not overly so). Swank and Crowley are heard very little. Overall, both these tracks are intriguing alternatives to the usual supplements.
The rest of the extras on the disc also give new twists on traditional features. In "180°: A Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino" (17 minutes), the two men interview each other in an unscripted conversation done sometime during post-production. Pacino asks Nolan questions about filmmaking techniques, like the intrusive camera; Nolan asks Pacino about acting techniques, like comparing film to theater. They also address the remake issue. Given the film's themes of ethical interaction, this balanced exchange teaches us more about both artists than the usual, stiff, one-way interview.
"Day for Night" (8 minutes) is less of a "making of" documentary than an introduction to the themes of the film and the psychology of the characters. Nolan, executive producer Stephen Soderbergh, and others talk about the story's subjective focus. Hillary Swank and Robin Williams weigh in on characterization. "In the Fog" (6 minutes) twice runs the same behind the scenes footage of the film's exterior locations, with selectable commentary by Nathan Crowley or Wally Pfister, to give a sense of the technical hurdles of the film. "Eyes Wide Open" (7 minutes) presents doctors and real-life insomniacs discussing the surreal and often paranoid effects of chronic insomnia.
There are a few more traditional features as well. Nolan offers a 3-minute deleted scene with optional commentary. There is also a gallery of promotional stills and behind-the-scenes photos, along with cast and crew biographies and a trailer.
Ultimately, any DVD stands or falls on the quality of the feature on it. And Insomnia is a strong major studio debut from Christopher Nolan. Surprisingly complex, it offers plenty of opportunities for its fine cast to flex their acting talents and a strong story that bears up to repeat viewings. Of course, watching is always about seeking the truth. As Will Dormer learns, the Other is always out there, always watching. Soon, it will call him to account. As Walter Finch says, "You don't get to pick when you tell the truth. The truth is beyond that." In the face-to-face encounter, the ethical gesture itself, all will be revealed. Insomnia suggests that watching itself only reveals that we in turn are being watched. And that knowledge should be enough to keep you awake at night.
In a film about our judgment of others and our judgments about ourselves, this court is powerless to intervene. Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan are acquitted of all charges. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Shooting Order Commentary by Christopher Nolan
Review content copyright © 2002 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.