Eyes Wide Open

No rest for the wicked in Christopher Nolans Insomnia

While Japan is renowned for taking other countries' products and making them smaller and cheaper, America—especially Hollywood—is famous for just the opposite. Our movie studios routinely snap up the rights to elegant little foreign films, then stuff the remakes so full of money that they lumber across the screen like gazelles force-fed to the size of hippopotamuses.

You can hear the distant thud of hippo feet in the opening moments of Insomnia, the remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg's creepy metaphysical thriller about a tormented policeman played by Stellan Skarsgård. Where that 1997 Norwegian picture began with a quick shot of clouds and Skarsgård's slab-faced detective sitting inside an airplane cabin—low-budget shorthand for air travel—the Warner Bros. version gives its hero's opening journey more sumptuous treatment: aerial shots of a plane winging over glaciers and forests, a fancy pontoon-landing outside a picturesque Alaskan village, a greeting on the dock by local cop Hilary Swank. Oh, yes, and the detective has now been upgraded to Al Pacino, who emerges from the plane with the ravaged, vainglorious grandeur of an ancient Roman ruin.

His character, Will Dormer, is a cartoonishly named LAPD detective who's been sent with his partner (Martin Donovan) to the backwater town of Nightmute ("Halibut fishing capital of the world") to help solve the murder of a teenage girl. Although legendary for his crime-solving prowess, Dormer is actually riddled with angst, haunted by an internal-affairs inquiry back home and assailed by a sense of cosmic injustice that eats at his liver like a buzzard. His mood only gets bleaker when he screws up the investigation with lethal consequences. Trying to cover up his mistake, Dormer finds himself enmeshed in a complicated game of cat-and-mouse with the girl's murderer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who insists they're two of a kind, innocent men who have accidentally become killers. Dormer isn't buying it, but, stewing in guilt and utterly unable to sleep in his thin-curtained hotel room—the summer sun shines in Nightmute 23 hours per day—he sinks into a profound exhaustion, prey to his own unsleeping inner darkness.

Insomnia was adapted by first-time screenwriter Hillary Seitz, who manages to preserve what gave the original film its power—gravity, interiority and a sense of moral unease—yet still endow the action with an enjoyable Hollywood sheen. She ratchets up the violence, invents a much bigger role for the psycho-killer (he is Robin Williams, after all) and laces the dialogue with an urban rawness that Pacino's rasp turns into a kind of weird poetry. ("You're about as mysterious to me," he snaps at one suspect, "as a blocked toilet is to a fuckin' plumber.") Where Skarsgård's hero gave off more than a whiff of sleaziness—feeling up a jailbait witness, eyeballing a young couple having sex—Seitz knows how far she can make a star like Pacino morally ambiguous without wholly losing the mass audience, as Sean Penn did with Jack Nicholson in The Pledge. Unlike the Norwegian cop, whose inner demons were so deeply embedded within him that they seemed part of the gloomy DNA of the Scandinavian psyche, Dormer's conflicts are naked enough that he can eventually achieve the moment of redemption American films expect of their heroes.

With Insomnia, director Christopher Nolan has shucked off the independent-film chrysalis inside which he made his cult hit Memento. I suspect that fans of that film and his 1998 British import Following may be a bit disappointed with this new movie, a conventional thriller without any of the time-jump shenanigans that gave Memento its special kick—nobody will feel the need to see this new movie twice. Of course, whenever indie filmmakers leap to the studios, you always worry that they'll be smothered by the bureaucracy (all those smug apparatchiks, all those bossy prima donnas) and be forced to sacrifice what makes their work personal. Yet I'm not sure that Nolan is nearly as distinctive a talent as Memento's gimmick made some people think. He seems not to be one of those filmmakers, like David Lynch or the Coens, whose every frame expresses an idiosyncratic artistic vision. Instead, he recalls Steven Soderbergh (who co-produced this new film) in his honorable, old-Hollywood knack for making entertainments geared to an intelligent audience. Nolan pulls off Insomnia's big set pieces, especially the scene in which Dormer chases Finch across a floating logjam, sort of a real-life equivalent of the video game Frogger. But he also uses this crime story to explore his work's preoccupations: psychological disarray; shared guilt (Patricia Highsmith-style doppelgängering) and the inescapable awareness that the past is often more alive than the present. In the world of Christopher Nolan, memory is still as treacherous as nitroglycerin.

Like Soderbergh, Nolan is a terrific director of actors. Here he needed to be, for the Pacino-Williams pairing could have easily turned into a WWF bout of overacting—both men's default setting is Too Much. Nolan gets his two larger-than-life leads playing off each other in the same frame (which is something Michael Mann couldn't pull off in Heat's pairing of Pacino and De Niro) and coaxes a melancholy turn from Pacino, an icon of angst whose real strength has always been his capacity for eloquent silence: his world-weary eyes make insomnia the merest of formalities.

The movie also boasts an unexpectedly subtle performance from Williams, whose increasingly crumpled face makes Robert Altman's long-ago casting of him as Popeye look positively visionary. Williams is an astonishing performer, but in the past, his attempts to play ordinary people came across as simulacrums of ordinariness in which he resembled an uncannily precise but heartless puppet. As Finch, he has finally figured out how to play normal—he actually appears saner than Dormer—and the great joke is that he's playing a murderer. But while it's a good piece of dramatic acting, I still find myself curious about the casting. Why hire Robin Williams to play a down-to-earth-seeming guy when hundreds of other actors can do that without breaking a sweat? And if you do cast him as a psycho-killer, why not unleash him and get the benefit of his improvisational genius? (Nothing he does in Insomnia is nearly as enjoyable as the moment on Conan last week when he tweaked the self-serious Pacino while impersonating Sean Penn in I Am Sam.)

If Dormer and Finch incarnate differing degrees of guilt, the burden of innocence is carried by eager policewoman Ellie Burr, charmingly played by Swank, who displays a genial looseness that has eluded her ever since winning her Oscar. Although not a huge role, Officer Burr becomes the film's moral center, for she alone undergoes a real transformation from naiveté to experience. She starts out worshiping Dormer for his righteous prowess but winds up discovering how easy it is to be compromised while acting in the name of good.

In the end, Insomnia tells the story of a detective who begins by investigating a horrible crime and winds up confronting his own guilty soul. Although the American remake spells everything out as the taut Norwegian version does not, it still hews closely enough to the original that watching them back-to-back is strangely revealing. Indeed, if you rent the video after viewing Nolan's movie, you'll have the unexpected pleasure of seeing what it would be like if Europe got into the habit of taking big Hollywood star vehicles and remaking them with far smaller budgets and a far larger sense of what one dares put onscreen. For example: in the original movie, Skarsgård's cop desperately needs a spent bullet to cover up his crime, so he shoots a barking dog on the street and pulls the slug from its body. In the American version, Dormer needs the same bullet, but as he wanders down an alley, he stumbles across a dead dog that somehow happens to have been conveniently placed in his path—just so he has a carcass to fire into. "I don't mind killing a cop," you can almost hear Pacino rasping to the producers, "but I'll be damned if you're going to show me shooting a dog."

Insomnia was directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Hillary Seitz, from a screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg; and stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Swank. Now playing countywide.

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