Inessential Essentials: Re-considering Christopher Nolan's Insomnia

Christopher Nolan InsomniaThe film: Insomnia (2002)

Why It's an Inessential Essential: Last week, Warner Brothers released a Blu Ray box set of British director Christopher Nolan's films. Looking at the box set (other titles include: Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception), one is reminded of Nolan's celebrity status as one of the most instantly recognizable filmmakers working today. Which makes it difficult to imagine a film that might be considered obscure or in need of reconsideration. But the clear outlier in the Christopher Nolan Director's Collection is Insomnia, Nolan's remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name.

As a remake and an adaptation, Nolan's film isn't as strong as it should be. But as a self-sufficient work, Nolan's version is a modest success. The film's chase and actions scenes alone are some of the best in his filmography, filmed with a confidence and an eerie atmosphere that stand out in his impressive, if inconsistent, body of work. It's worth owning this box set, in other words, because it gives you a good picture of how the filmmaker takes his technical skill and polish and applied it to a number of disparate subjects and settings.

The narrative and psychological underpinnings of Insomnia are, typical of Nolan, basic to the point of being crude. His characters are not psychologically complex but they are all to some extent thoughtful and sophisticated, and Insomnia protagonist Will Dormer is no exception to that rule. Al Pacino plays Dormer, a burnt-out L.A. police investigator that used to be a big hot-shot but is now just a has-been. Dormer's the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation, so he heads to Alaska to help look for a killer - and winds up accidentally fatally shooting his partner. Most of Insomnia's surprisingly brisk two-hour runtime is spent watching Will fall apart and forming a precarious bond with Walter Finch (Robin Williams), the murderer Dormer originally set out to catch.

How the Blu Ray Makes the Case for the Film: In the director's commentary track and an interview he recorded with Pacino, Nolan talks a bit about his creative process and inadvertently reveals why Insomnia is as good as it is. Being a left-brain thinker, Nolan deconstructs the way he shot the film in his audio commentary by addressing scenes within the order they were shot. This is pretty striking since this does not gives you an idea of the importance Nolan placed on certain scenes (two days to shoot the high school interrogation scene!) but how filmmakers work out of continuity and have to quickly form a rapport with actors.

Insomnia is after all as successful as it is because of the atmosphere Nolan creates, and that's not just a matter of slick mechanical direction of scenes but also of his actors. Some of what Nolan says is a bit hard to swallow, like when idly ponders, "I think Al was appreciative of getting to start with some physical action." And while one should not be surprised to hear him talk passionately about "cross-cutting action," it is interesting to hear him talk about the way that he establishes his relatively advanced technical skills as a filmmaker to accentuate the film's human element. The weaker, more over-reaching psychological talking points in Hillary Seitz's screenplay are made stronger by Nolan's eye for detail, and you can tell why in the way that he talks about Pacino's body language in close-up and his use of "small camera moves" to capture Dormer's "virtuosity." The human element at the heart of Insomnia may not be as strong as it should be, but by the standards established by Nolan's films, it's pretty strong.

It should be noted however that while none of the special features in the Christopher Nolan Director's Collection are exclusive to the set, save for a booklet and some glossy photo stills, there are a number of interesting and enlightening features on the other film's Blu Rays, too. The "Batman: Unmasked: The Psychology of The Dark Knight" featurette on The Dark Knight is especially worthwhile, as is the inclusion of Jonathan Nolan's script for Memento Mori, the short film that preceded Memento.

Other Trivia: Speaking of continuity editing, it's kind of neat to hear Pacino name-drop and talk about collaborating with everyone including, "Francis [Ford Coppola]," "[Sidney] Lumet," and "Bobby De Niro." These experiences really color his working with Nolan, especially when Pacino talks about how heart-broken Coppola was when working on some unnamed picture because the film's shooting day was over (it was past 6pm, according to Pacino). Pacino found the Godfather director in tears in a cemetery, lamenting, "They won't give me another set-up!" This is especially funny in light of how Nolan just finished talking a little about how much of a director's job is a matter of "covering" his actors, thereby ensuring that he gets everything he needs so that he can later assemble it all in the editing room.

Simon Abrams is a NY-based freelance film critic whose work has been featured in outlets like The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture and Esquire. Additionally, some people like his writing, which he collects at Extended Cut.


  • MeanMrMustard says:

    Good read!

  • The Cantankerist says:

    "The human element at the heart of Insomnia may not be as strong as it should be, but by the standards established by Nolan’s films, it’s pretty strong."

    C'mon. It's hard to talk about Insomnia without noting Pacino's now-traditional excursions into A-grade ham, but even ignoring that, to say that the human element is pretty strong "by Nolan standards" is like praising a Michael Bay film for being the most delicate, wistful and melancholic of the Bay oeuvre. It's an obvious weakness in every one of his films - yes, slightly less obvious in Insomnia because a little Scandinavian distance is already part of the piece, but hardly praiseworthy.

  • cainepene says:

    This poorly written piece is straight up hilarious.
    Insomnia was an ok film, that was completely wrong for Nolan. He works best with a lot of things going on, with layers of plot that he must lead the audience through, not introspection. This is a film for the Mark Romanek's of this world, not Nolan. There are no interior voices in Chris Nolan films.
    I also love the way the writer talks of Nolan's technical brilliance as if that's a given, and requires no examples. It isn't in this film buddy. Inception is his first complete technical masterpiece, built on moments of his previous work. There is a decent sequence in the foggy forest, but even that isn't exactly difficult.
    Insomnia is Nolan stripped of his brother's scripts for the first time, and left rather naked because of it.

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