Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Sleeplessness of the Unjust

A few weeks back I promised I would write a post on Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. Here it is, slightly delayed.

I've now watched all of Christopher Nolan's currently-released films with the exception of his student work. So I can say with some certainty that Insomnia represents a break from the rest of his oeuvre and – perhaps – hints towards his future artistic development.

Like its two predecessors, Following and Memento, Insomnia is a noirish psychological thriller. Following took place in a seedy London, while Memento occurs in an unnamed and rundown western American town. Both films are gritty and often filmed from street level. Insomnia retains a somewhat squalid setting – the town of Nightmute, Alaska is hardly a pleasant place – but juxtaposes the story's human crimes and cruelties with the grandeur and bleak beauty of Alaska (or, rather, northwestern Canada where the movie was filmed). In the movie's northern panoramas, we can see the first hints of Nolan's love of spectacle, so apparent in The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Insomnia isn't Nolan's best movie by any means, yet it nonetheless feels like an expansion of his abilities.

Al Pacino stars as the not-at-all-symbolically-named Will Dormer, an LA detective and "hero cop." He and his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), wouldn't normally lend themselves to an Alaska murder, but both want to be out of the way of an Internal Affairs investigation in LA. Neither cop, as we find out, has an entirely perfect record, however many psychopaths they may have put away in the past. The local detectives aren't exactly bumpkins, yet they have little experience of murder and are glad to have the celebrity experts help them investigate the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl. Especially glad to work with the legendary Dormer is Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who has studied the great detective's past cases.

Of course everything goes wrong. Dormer finds he can't sleep in Nightmute, where the sun stays up for days; he ends up making a horrible mistake, then covering up his crime. Then the killer he's been hunting starts playing games with Dormer's addled head and confused heart. Like Memento, Insomnia is, at heart, a study of a single character. The straightforward and relatively simple plot helps us keep the important thing – Dormer's soul – at the front of our mind. Of course it doesn't hurt that Al Pacino plays the insomniac cop. Throughout the week over which Insomnia takes place, we watch Dormer break down. At first he's the quintessential big city cop, gruff, cynical, and scarred. By the end, he's a slurring wreck; several times he almost totals his car.

Dormer's insomniac hallucinations are interesting, but they're not as disruptive as they perhaps should be. In Memento, we're constantly reminded of Leonard's unique mental state; it's the prism through which we must view his actions. In Insomnia, however, it's far too easy to forget how tired Dormer must be. His physical and mental states are vital to the plot, but they can easily slip away from the audience. Nolan and Pacino often remind us of the insomnia – near car crashes, scenes of Pacino failing to sleep, etc. – and yet the effect doesn't quite stick.

Insomnia is a strange film. The opening scenes make us think we are watching a crime thriller, and there are indeed a few shootouts, plus several scenes of sleuthing. Yet, as the film wears on, the "central" murder mystery loses importance. We realize that we're watching a moral-psychological thriller, not a criminal-psychological one – we find out the identity of the perpetrator halfway through the film. I kept expecting a further plot twist, but none ever came. I suppose watching all of Nolan's other films trained me to expect deviousness where there is none.

Of all Nolan's films, Insomnia is probably the one I like least. For all its many virtues – the setting, the cinematography, the Pacino – it seems to lack something. It's nowhere near as tense or disconcerting as most of Nolan's films, and the plot is somewhat too predictable. In theory, I admire its elevation of character over plot, but nothing quite gels together here. Like all of Nolan's films, it's worth watching. It is also, however, the one I am least likely to rewatch.

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