Director Christopher Nolan, the auteur behind the masterful Memento, has made an odd choice for a follow-up, choosing to remake the Norwegian film Insomnia, which starred Stellan Skarsgård as a troubled cop investigating a murder north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets. Nolan has kept the story intact, moving it ’round the Circle from Norway to Alaska, putting monster stars Al Pacino and Robin Williams in the lead roles… and telling the whole story backwards!
Okay, I’m joking about the backwards part, but to tell you the truth, this retread could have used it. It certainly needs a lot more than Pacino’s overacting and cinematographer Wally Pfister’s mood lighting to be watchable.
The story is capable, a curious twist on the standard cop-chases-killer mystery. In Nightmute, Alaska (which is actually considerably south of the Arctic Circle, but no matter), a girl has been brutally beaten to death. From Los Angeles come two LAPD detectives, Dormer (Pacino) and Hap (Martin Donovan), enlisted to help out the yokels. The investigation proceeds apace, and in a stakeout Hap gets shot — by his partner Dormer. Was it an accident? Or did it have something to do with an internal affairs investigation going on back at home. And what about the creepy guy (Williams) who probably killed the girl? Why does he keep calling Dormer at his hotel, where he can’t sleep because the sun won’t go down?
The answers are more or less forthcoming, but Nolan certainly takes his time in getting to them. Far from the rollercoaster ride of Memento, Insomnia is far sleepier than it aspires to be. If Dormer’s having trouble sleeping, he really ought to try watching his own movie.
But eventually, a story does come out, and it isn’t really a whodunit, as the guilty parties become evident midway through the film. The real question is whether Dormer will get busted for shooting his pal, and whether he’ll make a deal with the killer (who witnessed the “accidental” slaying of Hap). We get interesting moral complications without an obvious course of action — though the eager, goody-two-shoes local cop (Hilary Swank) certainly tries to force a Hollywood ending out of it (thus botching the dénouement altogether).
But a clever morality fable alone doesn’t make a two-hour movie worth sitting through, and Insomnia’s problems are legion. Pacino slips in and out of a Southern accent so badly it seems like a joke he’s pulling on us (or maybe on young upstart Nolan). Swank’s “Golly gee!” cop is perhaps the most one-dimensional character ever put to film. And I don’t know what Robin Williams is trying to do career-wise with his new Tough Guy persona (seen here and in Death to Smoochy), but I will say it ain’t working. He comes off as little more than a garden-variety freak: Think Mork on heroin.
Nolan capably sets the mood with dim-but-omnipresent lighting which fits well with the story’s challenging script, but his players simply run roughshod over the material. Nolan is quite faithful to Erik Skjoldbjærg’s original version, but the Norse version moves much more quickly and lacks the hammy star power to get in the way of the creepy script. Skarsgård’s version of the cop is meaner but has no ulterior motive for shooting his partner. The original killer is more frightening, and the girl cop is more tolerable. The thrills are more thrilling, the mystery is more mysterious, the ending is more satisfying; it’s just a better movie. Even if you haven’t seen the original, consider Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, a strikingly similar film that features a collection of impeccable performances which make Insomnia look like amateur hour.
Insomnia’s DVD features a few notable extras — the lone deleted scene isn’t worth watching, and the “production diary” interviews and conversations are inaudible. Curiously, the commentary from Nolan is recorded and played back in the order the scenes were shot. As well, an interesting short documentary on insomnia (the disorder) is worth a peek.