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Looking Back: Insomnia (2002)

Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake of the 1999 Swedish masterpiece “Insomnia” marked his first big budget studio film. It also put in plain view the themes and cinematic panache that would mark all of his work. While “Insomnia” (which came after Nolan’s intriguing, little seen “Following” and his delicious puzzle, “Memento”) is a police procedural thriller, it presents the Nolan trademark of how the viewer can’t know the whole story until you’ve seen every narrative angle. This is the audience working as a jury, observing all the case facts, pondering all of the evidence and seeing moments repeatedly from perspectives both spotless and hazy, until it all comes clear.

Al Pacino stars as a Will Dormer, a celebrated L.A. homicide detective who, along with his partner Hap (played by Martin Donovan) takes up a case in Alaska. They are greeted by a chipper, unctuous cop (played by Hilary Swank) who is enamored to be working with Will, a legendary law enforcer whose work she studied. The Alaskan and L.A. crime units merge to solve the case of a murdered young woman; initially the investigation shows promise, as Dormer’s expertise stands out in contrast to the local cops. Once the key suspect is in view, Dormer’s personal issues and his inability to sleep hinder his judgment and the investigation.

This is one of Pacino’s finest late-career turns. In his introductory moments, Swank is star struck to meet him, as her character has studied his work in law enforcement. You can also imagine Swank having the same reaction upon meeting Pacino in real life, as his legendary status as an actor fits the gravity of his onscreen presence. Swank’s character represents an untarnished innocence and her performance is moving and refreshingly sunny in contrast to everything else.

Initially, Nolan’s assigning Robin Williams in the role of the killer feels like stunt casting. In early scenes, with Williams’ stunt double and a few phone calls setting up the character, I wondered if someone less iconic might have been a better choice. Yet, as soon as Williams and Pacino finally have a lengthy scene together, it all clicks. While not on the level of the Pacino/De Niro diner scene in “Heat,” Williams is more than up to the chore of sharing the screen and delivering work as commanding as his formidable co-star. Rather than play the character as outwardly crazy, Williams goes in the opposite direction, shaping his killer as a soft-spoken, pseudo-intellectual, seemingly “normal” creep. Coming in between the comic “Death to Smoochy” and the disturbing “One Hour Photo,” Williams marked 2002 playing “bad guys” and radically flipping audience expectations. While he played deranged villains before (particularly in a terrific, little seen turn in “Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent”), it provided a refreshing change of pace at this point in his career, when he was becoming best known for the likes of “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Flubber.” A smart, consistent note Williams always plays when he assays antagonists: a seething anger rising up from within and a haughty sense of entitlement.

Nolan’s cerebral approach isn’t as challenging here as it was in “Memento” but his editing choices evoke the fractured head space of Pacino’s character. Memories literally bleed into view, hallucinations take hold of reality and things remembered and seen one way become something different when recalled later. In addition to the skillful splicing of imagery, the sound choices are excellent.

“Insomnia” is effective at shaping an unsettling vision, making the outdoor splendor of Alaska (actually, most of it was filmed in Canada, but never mind) seem lonely, prickly and barren enough to swallow up anyone who treads through it alone. We see Pacino’s character amble sleeplessly through empty towns, drive through vast roads with hardly another passing vehicle and struggle to embrace unconsciousness while in an over-lit hotel room. Like Nolan’s “The Prestige,’ it’s always entertaining and presents a tricky mystery to fully unravel but it’s never fun.

I saw the original “Insomnia” a year before this remake appeared and still prefer the haunting, Stellan Skarsgard-starring Swedish 1997 film over this one. Yet, it must be said that Nolan hasn’t made a by-the-numbers rehash or another seen-it-before, killer-on-the-loose, “Seven” wannabe. At times, “Insomnia” matches the eerie precision of a David Fincher film and the talent both behind and in front of the camera is impeccable. Pacino’s final line is moving and likely lingered with Nolan as he continues to helm one masterpiece after another: “Don’t lose your way.”

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