DVD - Image A Sound A Extras B
BD - Image A+ Sound A Extras B
starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney
screenplay by Hillary Seitz, based on the screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg
directed by Christopher Nolan
by Walter Chaw Director Christopher Nolan follows up his justifiably hailed indie masterpiece Memento with Insomnia, a mainstream Hollywood remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg's tremendous 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Like the ill-fated American version of the French/Dutch Spoorloos (a.k.a. The Vanishing), what emerges from this studio remake is a frightened, sometimes patronizing, and ultimately ineffectual thriller that transforms all the controversy and introspection of the original into something rote and predictable. A close comparison between Skjoldbjærg and Nolan's visions for the material brings to light the defective machinery of big-budget motion pictures in Hollywood. The sad irony of such a discussion is that Nolan's Memento was so remarkable because it represented nearly everything that Insomnia is not.
The basic outline is the same: a veteran homicide detective (Det. Dormer (Al Pacino)) and his partner (Eckhart (Martin Donovan)) are called to the arctic to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in an insular community, where they're met by eager young detective Burr (Hilary Swank). Lack of sleep and a tragic accident lead Dormer to question his judgment while forcing him into an uneasy alliance with the killer, Finch (Robin Williams). The Dormer character in Skjoldbjærg's film--called "Engström" and played by the magnificent Stellan Skarsgård--is a deeply ambiguous figure. Well-respected beyond a doubt, he sexually assaults a minor and gets a little too rough with an innkeeper. He murders a dog, frames an innocent, and kills the "villain," who, by the end of the piece, seems infinitely more reasonable than Engström. At the conclusion, rather than provide justification for the character, we're left to form our own opinions on the morality governing his actions. In Nolan's film, Dormer ethics are less indistinct--any misdeeds are cleansed by the kind of Hollywood shoot-'em-up that never fails to place an otherwise strong female character in peril (and always for her own stupidity in not listening to a man) and provide a martyr's finish for a vaguely sullied protagonist.
The filmmakers are so terrified of offering the American audience something to contemplate, in fact, that the undercurrents of the original film are presented in the remake as a long anecdotal tale that serves as the introduction to this Insomnia's reconceptualized conclusion. Nolan's new and conventional ending scrubs the Dormer character of his sexual violence and replaces a murdered dog with a dog corpse defiled. As I'm particularly sensitive to animal violence in films, the death of a dog would seem a strange thing for me to harp on, but the fact that there is an assumption that U.S. audiences are as incapable of accepting a flawed character as an act of cruelty essential to the plot and the character is nettling and insulting.
The question arises as to whether Nolan's Insomnia stands on its own as a good film, and to that I can only say that I am governed by my admiration for the original. I can offer that Pacino and Williams are quite good, that Swank is not intolerable, and that what is essentially a cameo by Donovan, one of my favourite actors, is cause for minor celebration. Wally Pfister's (Memento) lensing evokes the harshness and beauty of the Alaskan wilderness and, during one addition of which I was fond, uses underwater photography in a way that's haunting and compelling.
But the film is a giant empty experience; when you rob a picture of subtext, you make it an amusement park ride and an actor's showcase. There's nothing provocative about this film save for the ways in which it studiously avoids provoking thought. The picture is unusually polished, perhaps, and certainly its cast acquits itself with the skill one might expect from three Oscar winners in the three main leads, but in the end, Insomnia is a big "nothing special." The film reflects a pervasive paternalistic cowardice, an attitude that America is incapable of drawing their own conclusions, examining nuances, weighing moral complexities, and appreciating the subtleties of an obscure text.
by Bill Chambers Insomnia finds itself on DVD in separate widescreen and full-frame (read: pan-and-scan--the cropping is severe and looks it) editions from Warner; this review pertains to the former. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer will impress even the most jaded viewer, exhibiting stark blacks and whites that often suggest the silver retention process used famously in theatrical and LaserDisc presentations of Seven. The near-reference image is well matched by a subtle 5.1 Dolby Digital soundmix that rumbles aggressive when necessary. Intense bass often accompanies Dormer's microsleep hallucinations, while canny use of the split-surrounds helps to disorient the viewer during the fog chase. All in all, one of Warner's finest achievements in authoring.
Ever the dabbler in po-mo experimentation, director Christopher Nolan's commentary for the film was assembled in the order that scenes were shot rather than as a linear continuum. The result, best viewed on a computer because the response time of a standard player's shuffle mode tends to be slower than that of a ROM drive, is only half-successful, with Nolan often placing too much emphasis on when something was filmed and too little on how, no doubt symptomatic of the approach. More interesting is the combined audio contribution--again employing seamless branching technology but to skip uncommented-upon passages--of Hilary Swank (acting as MC), screenwriter Hillary Seitz, DP Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, and editor Dody Dorned. Running 44 solid minutes, we discover in sum that Insomnia was painstakingly crafted, regardless of the outcome. It pleased me to learn that Pfister and Nolan do their own second-unit photography.
These commentaries fall under the umbrella of "Production Diaries", along with the 17-minute interview "180°: A Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino", in which the former sips tea and continually, if politely, interrupts an unusually articulate Pacino to reminisce. The featurette's high point is Pacino's comparison of Nolan to Sidney Lumet, inviting as it does discussion of the infrequently-considered Dog Day Afternoon. With a length of only seven minutes, you'd expect "Day for Night: The Making of Insomnia" to follow the EPK paradigm, but it's actually an interesting piece that ends prematurely--just when interviewee Robin Williams is starting to take his interrogation seriously. (Williams implies that his performance was inspired in part by documentary footage of Jeffrey Dahmer.) "In the Fog" comes in two parts: both offer a similar B-roll compilation that is first illuminated by Pfister, then by Crowley. Each manages not to totally recycle their commentary observations.
Elsewhere on the DVD is a deleted scene featuring Pacino and Tierney (with optional Nolan commentary) and a sympathetic documentary on real-life insomniacs Phillip Lacey and Laura Robinson called "Eyes Wide Open" (9 mins.). As someone vulnerable to sleepless nights, I appreciated hearing their sob stories, though I would've preferred more practical advice from the experts on parade, Dr. Frisco Yan Go and Dr. William Dement. An animated gallery of production stills ("From the Evidence Room"), filmographies for Pacino, Williams, Swank, Nolan, Pfister, and Crowley, and Insomnia's theatrical trailer round out this slick package. Originally published: October 11, 2002.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Insomnia to Blu-ray in an unimpeachable 2.40:1, 1080p presentation. What else to say, really? The razor-sharp clarity is immediately striking, as is the depth of black in the image; is it a mark of the transfer or Wally Pfister's cinematography that I sat there finding Hilary Swank stupid-hot all of a sudden? Either way: remarkable. Grain is ultra-fine, textures have an equally impressive relief in close-up or wide shot (the corduroy jacket Robin Williams wears is mesmerizingly tactile), and the compression is flawless, as evidenced by the non-banding during the fog scenes. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is crisper than the DD 5.1 track of the DVD, though the mix, in retrospect, is fairly reserved for a Chris Nolan joint. Extras are recycled from the 2002 platter, in standard-def. Originally published: July 27, 2010.