Before the release of Insomnia, I never would have imagined a film successfully pairing Robin Williams with Al Pacino. With Pacino’s reputation for intensity and Williams’ image as the funny man, these two would seem very unlikely costars. Yet director Christopher Nolan saw something in Williams; a subtle and unnerving calm hidden under the surface. Deciding to cast Williams against type as the killer squaring off against Pacino ended up being a brilliant casting move, and one that elevates Insomnia to a level beyond other films of its kind.
Based on a film from 1997, Insomnia is your standard cat-and-mouse cop thriller, but with a twist. This one takes place in the fictional town of Nightmute, Alaska, where for a brief period every year, the sun never sets. As Nolan himself describes it, this leads to “a very dark film with everpresent light.” Arriving in this town to investigate the murder of a local high school girl, famed detective Will Dormer (Pacino) is immediately caught off guard by the constant light, believing it to be 10 in the morning when it is actually 10 at night.
This sets the tone for his psychological reaction to being in this new type of location. Finding it impossible to sleep, he goes deeper and deeper into his investigation while falling further and further into a state of sleep-deprived insanity. As the days without sleep continue to add up, his mental state becomes a critical aspect of the story being told. It is as he is slowly losing grip on his sanity that Robin Williams comes into the picture, and this is where things really pick up.
Williams’ character of Walter Finch is a local mystery author, and somebody who has experienced the same insomnia that is plaguing Dormer. He knows what tricks his mind is playing, and he knows how to manipulate him to his benefit. Having seen Dormer accidentally kill his partner in a chase sequence through the fog, he begins to plant seeds of doubt as to whether the shooting was even an accident.
At this point, the screenplay by Hillary Seitz is juggling multiple threads. There’s the actual murder investigation, the insomnia itself, and Dormer’s coverup of his partner’s killing. In theory, this should be too much going on at once, but the script very cleverly integrates all of these different aspects to create a very tight story, in which the integration of all these elements feels very natural.
Christopher Nolan’s directing is brilliant. He manages to convey the darkness behind the constant light, while putting the audience into the slowly disintegrating mindset of Dormer. Using several camera tricks, he manages to recreate the disorientation and altered state of someone who hasn’t slept in days. At times, it can be unsettling to watch and this is exactly what he is going for.
Having said all that, a gread deal of the credit for the success of this film has to go to Nolan’s Director of Photography, Wally Pfister. He always does brilliant work, but he really outdoes himself here. He is able to convey so much with the way the light plays off a scene. Early in the film, there is a chase through the fog. In less capable hands, this scene could have been a disaster, but Pfister manages to light the scene in such a way that the audience always knows what is going on while simultaneously being as lost as the characters. There is also a chase sequence across rows of floating logs, and as the camera leaps with the characters across these logs, eventually plunging into the freezing water below, the audience is forced to experience the claustrophobia and discomfort of being trapped in the water.
Nolan has proven himself a master director several times, beginning with Memento, and most recently with Inception. Insomnia won’t go into the record books as his greatest film, but it’s a really good one. The actual murder case itself is a little generic, but it’s all of the other aspects of the story that make it that much more compelling. As mentioned above, Robin Williams is actually capable of being really scary, and him and Pacino end up a great team.
The recently released Blu-Ray has a decent set of extras, but nothing that really stands out. Unfortunately, it’s all older footage as well. The first is a feature where Nolan interviews Pacino for about 17 minutes. While I usually love this sort of thing, I found this to be really dull. It turns out that Pacino and Nolan are both very soft-spoken, and I found the conversation very dry. There is also a making of feature called “Day for Night: The Making of Insomnia.” This only runs a little under eight minutes, but it is pretty interesting material. There is a lot of footage of Williams talking about his techniques, and it’s really interesting to see him discussing this dark character but with the trademark Williams humor.
Next up is “In the Fog,” a montage of behind-the-scenes footage from the fog chase mentioned above. They have the footage twice, one with Pfister doing a commentary and the other with Director of Photography Nathan Crowley. I really enjoyed getting these two perspectives on the same sequence. The scene isn’t that long, but it’s pivotal, and I found it fascinating to see how much work goes into creating a singular moment in a film like this.
There’s also a very short deleted scene, a trailer, a commentary from Nolan as well as scene-specific commentaries from several people involved in the film, and a still gallery. The only other extra is a documentary on insomnia (the condition, not the film), called “Eyes Wide Open.”
While not the most memorable movie Nolan’s made, this is still a really entertaining and unsettling film. It’s rare that a filmmaker can bring an audience into an unsettling psychological state with a character, but he pulls it off. For this reason, and for Robin Williams performance, I would highly recommend this film.