For a man who has 8 films under his belt as a director, it seems like Christopher Nolan has been in the movie world forever. His dominance of the 2000s was so thorough and immediate that it only seemed natural to include his name amongst the greats even with a relatively limited resume. Even so, whenever conversations of the director emerge, they seem to focus on his take on Batman, his exploration of magic and deception, the idea of memory loss and toying with narrative.
The movie that’s notoriously missing is his sophomore feature, his first studio picture, Insomnia.
The remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name starred Al Pacino as a LA detective brought to the no-horse town of Nightmute, Alaska during a time of year when the sun never sets. Brought in to help with a brutal homicide, Detective Dormer finds himself mentally unraveling after a foggy accident, many sunny nights without sleep and an internal investigation back home that threatens to end his career.
It’s a strong crime film with outstanding performances that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten about in the wake of Batman, Bale and breaking into dreams. Insomnia is a movie worth a second look.
A Noir with the Lights On
There’s nothing tricky – or at least as tricky – going on in Insomnia when compared to other Nolan films. In one way, it’s a vehicle for Pacino to appear barely in control of himself for an entire movie, and in another, it’s 1/3rd of Robin Williams‘s 2002 proof (alongside Death to Smoochy and One Hour Photo) that he could do more than we thought. No matter which performance stands out the most, though, the movie itself is really a tribute to the slower-moving detective stories where the protagonist is far from perfect. It’s telling that Jonathan Demme was once in line to direct.
Pacino’s Dormer is a man at a crossroads. He’s a hero, but he’s being eyed by Internal Affairs for an indiscretion that comes to light throughout the story. His partner Hap (played expertly by Martin Donovan) reveals that he’s ready to cut a deal, making Dormer lose his appetite and contemplate is own fate. His career ending stares him down literally as he becomes obsessed with the digital clock in his hotel room – a room always warm with the constant sun outside and curtains that can’t keep it out entirely. While attempting to trap the killer of a young high school girl, Dormer accidentally shoots Hap and knows instantly that IA will believe he did it intentionally. He’s damned – stuck trying to cover up an accident by claiming the girl’s killer took down his partner.
That’s when the killer starts calling.
It’s more straightforward than, say, The Prestige, but there’s something mesmerizing about what Nolan has done to the genre here. By making something so open-air, he’s subverted the mystery convention completely. This is no whodunnit where clues mount up until we find a murderer. We see baldly that Dormer kills Hap, and that death becomes a tipping point for what Dormer will do in order to save himself. Plus, we don’t have to wait until the end to meet the psycho who took the life of 17-year-old Kay Connell; in the smartest plot turn of the picture, he comes out of the shadow to taunt and collaborate with Dormer as the only man to see what really happened out there in the fog (other than us).
At that point, there’s no more mystery left to solve – it’s simply a matter of seeing Dormer to his natural wit’s end to discover whether he’ll be able to get away with the death of his partner or whether the bright-eyed Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) will put the puzzle pieces and inconsistencies together.
While it’s not the mysterious clockworks that Nolan tends toward, it’s definitely not a simple entry into the canon of crime.
Nolan’s Flawed Main Man
Leonard Shelby had this condition. He had trouble remembering things, and it led him to kill any number of people named Edward G. Detective Dormer is next on the list – a cop who defaults to bending the rules in order to put someone behind bars. Far from the hero he’s believed to be, he’s not above planting evidence or colluding with a killer.
Bruce Wayne has his own demons to battle with, even as he tries his best to do right by his city.
Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are both magicians without much of a conscience toward the damage they do to each other, or the lies they tell the people around them. They’re obsessed, and ethics fall short when they aren’t in service of their individual goals.
Last, so far, is Cobb – a man who accidentally caused the suicide of his wife and pulls off corporate espionage at a large and primal level within the dream’s of important men. Like all the others, he’s damaged goods.
It’s a bit surprising that Dormer never seems to enter into the conversation considering how heinous he is and how formidable Pacino’s performance is. In light of more cartoonish portrayals in his later career, Pacino’s role here is elegantly subdued. It’s also balanced by an impossibly restrained Williams and given a difficult framework by the kind of deadly guilt that other Nolan protagonists experience.
Where most of them are surrounded by a puzzle or an experimental storytelling device, Dormer’s is only a naked descent into madness. His only companion is the mild mannered creep who killed a young girl. Unlike other Nolan films, it’s not the web that’s given the biggest spotlight – it’s the fly.
Moving to the Studio After Indie Dominance
In a way, it was probably “forgotten about” because it was his most traditional film. After Memento, which was the film version of rocket fuel for an emerging talent, Nolan leveraged his new name-recognition to earn a bigger budget and bigger stars. It’s easy to assume that this was a studio for-hire gig, but Nolan had actually gone to Warners before Memento to tackle Insomnia.
“I first approached Warner Bros. about the project before any script was written. I hadn’t made Memento at that point so I really wasn’t in a good position to get involved. Hillary Seitz was just about to start writing and had decided to do much the same things in adapting the film as I would have. It was important to where the film was set because we needed 24-hour daylight to make sure the protagonist is very disoriented and follow his progression through the story. When I finally finished Memento, I came back to Warner Bros. and showed them the film and was able to get on to the Insomnia project as the director. I then collaborated with Hillary Seitz on several drafts,” Nolan said in an interview with writer Dean Kish.
Nolan also stated that he enjoyed his time within the studio system, which makes sense considering his continued relationship (specifically with Warners). What’s most fascinating is that Nolan is a rare case where an indie filmmaker made a big impact and transitioned successfully into the studio world, balancing his own creative needs with the demands of box office returns.
Insomnia is also important for another key reason; it was well-received both critically and financially which led directly to Nolan getting the gig for Batman Begins.
Fortunately, we can all watch it again instantly.
This isn’t as explosive or experimental as Nolan’s other movies, but Insomnia is an important movie both for its internal merits and because of the effect it had on Nolan’s career. He could have been an indie darling, absorbed into the studio system only to find himself stumbling with talents like Pacino and Williams (not to mention the inflated budget and expectations). This isn’t a judgment call on his skills – even highly talented filmmakers find themselves unable to deliver within the confines of the studio system. Even great movies don’t find an audience.
Without Insomnia, we wouldn’t have gotten a pairing as wonderfully unsettling as Williams and Pacino, there would be one less excellent crime movie in the world, and Nolan wouldn’t have been given the keys to Gotham. Imagine a timeline without Insomnia, and you’ll have to imagine a timeline without Nolan’s Batman.
On a simpler level, though, it’s just a damned good movie that earns its own spot in any conversation about this stunning filmmaker.