Reviewed by: Stephen Carty

After director Christopher Nolan’s ‘memorable’ first feature movie, Memento, there was a natural curiosity surrounding what he would do next. In true Nolan style, he pulled the rug out from under us by doing a police procedural with Al Pacino that, on the surface, appears like a straightforward cat-and-mouse thriller. In reality, Insomnia (a remake of the widely-praised 97 original of the same name) is a tense and affecting motion picture which is leaps and log-river bounds ahead of your average cop movie.

When legendary detective Will Dormer (Pacino) and partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are assigned to Alaska to help local police hunt the murderer of a young girl, it gives them a chance to escape an ongoing Internal Affairs investigation. However, when Dormer accidentally shoots Hap after finding out he’s about to make a deal with IA, the killer (Robin Williams) sees him and it’s only a matter of time before bright cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) figures things out. With the guilt and stress mounting, Dormer is hit with severe insomnia.

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The success of the film is largely thanks to the British director. Despite being a second choice for the chair (the director of the original, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, declined) Nolan is the perfect choice for a movie like this, fusing suspense with a Hitchcockian style to great effect. In other hands Insomnia could have come across as generic and run-of-the-mill, here all the simple things are done well and there’s never any need to go all ‘conventional’ with unnecessary car-chases or drawn-out action sequences. Indeed, it builds to a crescendo and features a morally-conflicted ‘hero’ in serious need of some Nightol.

Combining blurred images, enhanced noises and unsettling flashes of Hap, Nolan also effectively conveys our protagonist’s state of mind. Though Dormer’s former boss describes his town as a simpler place with good guys and bad guys, Insomnia examines morality and the grey, in-between area where the line blurs in terms of right and wrong. With some awesome location shots of the Arctic circle and a brooding score from David Julyan, Nolan’s picture oozes atmosphere and poses us questions: Is it right to frame someone if you know they’re guilty but can’t prove it? Is working with Finch worth it if it keeps past scumbags locked up? And how the hell is Pacino still cool at his age?

Speaking of the former Godfather, while Will Dormer won’t go down in history as one of Pacino’s more memorable roles, he’s excellent as always. As anyone familiar with cinema will tell you, he can play a cop in his sleep (and here he nearly does). Elsewhere, though Swank is spot-on, Williams stands out in another one of his recently-refined ‘chilling yet seemingly normal’ roles (One Hour Photo anyone?).

In a day and age where it seemed like Hollywood had forgotten how to make a decent police thriller, Chris Nolan reminds how to do it correctly. Powerful, interesting and another fine addition to the director’s burgeoning resume, Insomnia certainly won’t put you to sleep.

Reviewed on: 16 May 2009
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Al Pacino is an LA detective come to Alaska to solve a teenage murder.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **1/2

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Hillary Seitz, based on the script by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaeg for Insomnia (1997)

Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Paul Dooley

Year: 2002

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 2002

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One Hour Photo