Sun spots

Memento was good - but in Insomnia director Christopher Nolan comes of age.

Allison Felus

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At the risk of seeming contrarian, I have to admit I like Christopher Nolan’s most recent film Insomnia more than his breakthrough hit Memento. Spare me the hate mail and keep reading.

Insomnia is based on a 1997 Norwegian film of the same (translated) name. Nolan sets his movie in Nightmute, a small Alaskan town, where detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is summoned to investigate the gruesome murder of a teenage girl. Dormer’s already got a lot on his mind when he flies in, and the sleepless nights induced by the midnight Sun only agitate him further.

The plot complications that follow are less a question of ‘whodunit?’, than ‘what exactly did he do, why did he do it and what does that say about human nature?’.

Technically, Insomnia is Nolan’s third feature, but as far as his mainstream career goes, it’s his second effort. Between the phenomenal acclaim he received for 2001’s Memento and Insomnia’s Oscar-pedigreed cast (Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank), he must have felt enormous pressure to deliver the goods – and he succeeds marvelously.

Insomnia is an impeccably well-made film. It’s the kind of mature, intelligent feature Hollywood rarely makes anymore, particularly for release in summer blockbuster season. It embraces the conventions of the film noir genre without being coy, and there’s nary a pop song in sight – for that alone we should be thankful.

Like Fargo before it, Insomnia makes whiteness, brightness and light every bit as sinister as a dark alley or black forest. New York Times reviewer AO Scott finds this ‘wrestling with demons in the light’ facile, but it’s handled so deftly and matter-of-factly it seems as fresh as, well, telling a story in reverse.

We are made to feel the disorientation caused by unrelenting sunshine. Dormer pulls the shade down over his hotel room window, and is slowly driven mad by the brilliant daylight bursting past the edges. The mood of paranoia is heightened by the fact that the shade’s glowing sepia color belongs to the same dirty yellow palette used in Memento – a visual shorthand for good intentions gone wrong. And as sleep deprivation begins to impair Dormer’s ability to see straight, Nolan uses jump cuts and common household sound-effects to produce an effect as exhilarating as anything this side of Roman Polanski.

Pacino, like many great artists before him, has reached a point in his career where he can sometimes descend into a caricature of himself. But his performance here reminds us why he is such a legend. This character could have easily derailed other talented actors, but, like Denzel Washington in Training Day, Pacino lifts the conflicted, unhinged cop cliché out of genre muck.

Robin Williams goes head-to-head with Pacino as small-time mystery author Walter Finch. He usually grows a beard for these kinds of ‘serious’ roles, and his lack of facial hair nicely mirrors his restrained performance. He’s competent and serves the material well, even if he never quite allows you to forget you’re watching Robin Williams. And as the rookie cop Ellie Burr, Hilary Swank proves her celebrated performance in Boys Don’t Cry was no fluke. Every line of dialogue, every tiny gesture is delivered with precision.

The sexual politics of Insomnia are microscopic, yet key to the story. At first glance, it seems that the Ellie character could just as easily have been played by a man. But she balances the power struggle between Will and his doppelganger in much the same way that the murder victim balances the power struggle between Will and the killer. These two women provide some of the only moral certainties in the film’s topsy-turvy universe – Ellie through her search for truth, the girl through the horror of her death.

All this is to say I felt like I had a lot more to chew on after a first-view of Insomnia than Memento. Memento is a brilliant film, but there’s also something slightly hollow about it; I always fail to find myself as shocked as the film wants me to be.

While Memento feels like a young man’s film, Insomnia marks Christopher Nolan’s emergence as an adult director – providing enough material to ponder on for any number of sleepless nights.

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