Christopher Nolan revisited: Insomnia (2002)

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Christopher Nolan made the jump to studio filmmaking for the first time with 2002’s Insomnia: but how does the film stand up?

Spoilers lie ahead for Insomnia (2002)

An argument can be made for Insomnia as the first significant example of adapted Scandinavian noir for American audiences, and certainly of the 2000s. Almost to the extent of his first shorter offering, Forgotten, Insomnia runs the risk of living up to that name in the cinematic annals of Christopher Nolan.

What strikes first and foremost about Insomnia is that it lacks the same innovative visual style of his later work, or even in a different respect the structural ingenuity of Memento previously. Nolan doesn’t write the script, adapting the 1997 Norwegian drama of the same name – that falls to Hillary Seitz. You can tell. Nolan’s cinematic signature, as it becomes apparent fully around the point of The Prestige, is closely linked to the page. Insomnia lacks the percussive structural dynamism of Nolan’s later work, though perhaps with good reason.

If Inception is Nolan’s literal exploration of the dream state, Insomnia I would argue is his most dreamlike picture. It plunges our protagonist, Dormer (Al Pacino), into a somnambulist nightmare the moment he arrives in Nightmute, the small Alaskan town where the sun never sets at that time of year, immediately disrupting his body clock and preventing him sleeping across the picture. Pacino, forced to dial down the high-octane New York cop performance visible in films such as Heat, progressively grows increasingly catatonic, trapped in a haunting netherworld between waking and sleep where the barriers of what is real and true – certainly metaphorically – begin to decay.


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This is where Insomnia does feel like a trademark Nolan film. Almost all of his movies feature a male protagonist who is either broken, breaks or is deconstructed during the course of his pictures, from Guy Pearce’s Leonard right through to Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer. Dormer is no different. He is dispatched to the end of the world while internal affairs investigate him and his partner for corruption; indeed the hotelier, Rachel (Maura Tierney), near enough describes Nightmute as such: “There are two kinds of people who live in Alaska: the ones who are born here and the ones who come here to escape something else.” Dormer is escaping. Dormer is running. Yet rather than hiding in the dark, he is exposed by perpetual light.

One of the reasons Pacino really works for me in this role is precisely because it plays with your expectations. He’s such a vivid actor, sometimes broad, often charismatic and loud, always earthy and complex. Pacino comes loaded with exuberant context that Nolan strips away with Dormer. We’ve seen Pacino plays crooks or cops teetering on the edge before, but not like this. Not on the edge of waking sanity, driven by physical extremes, forced into a slowly developing state of psychological kinship with the killer he was sent to hunt. That makes Pacino’s performance, as he mentally circles the drain, all that more interesting. You expect him to come out swinging. In truth, all Dormer does is contract and decay across the movie.

Hilary Swank, playing perky, local detective Ellie Burr, suggested she felt similar to her character in learning from Pacino, as Ellie seeks to learn from Dormer. She is our way of bringing these expectations. She considers Dormer a legend. She believes Dormer will find the vicious killer who beat to death a 17 year old girl and kick his ass across the block. You even see some of this in how Dormer deals with the victim Kay’s scuzzy boyfriend Randy at the beginning, where he is the Pacino we remember: “This whole thing you’re doing, you know, this “fuck the world” act. Now that might work with your mama. It might even work with a couple of these local cops, who have known you long enough to figure you’re too dumb ever to kill anyone without leaving a couple of witnesses and a signed confession. Ain’t gonna work with me, because I know things, you understand?”


Ellie believes Dormer will show his wisdom, impart much of it to her through his work. Ellie remembers what wisdom Dormer does bring at the beginning and, as we see the man peel away, quotes it back at him later: “A good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t let him.” This underscores what Nolan does with Insomnia, where he twists convention.

Granted, we know Nolan later enjoys playing with our assumed expectations via slights of hand or narrative tricks (see The Prestige, Inception or Tenet), but with Insomnia he switches gears around halfway through as the film moves from a traditional ‘whodunit?’ to ‘whydunit?’, as he unveils the killer, frustrated writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams), and begins what in lesser hands would have been a conventional cat/mouse relationship between he and Dormer. Here, they are both cats circling each other, figuring each other out, as Dormer’s waking nightmare sees his morals and ethics compromised entirely. Finch, having experienced such sleeplessness himself, knows how to manipulate Dormer to his own ends.

Partly thanks to perhaps the signature set-piece in the film, Dormer chasing the killer through the misty Alaskan wastes, a sequence dropping with atmosphere, as indeed much of Insomnia does in portraying a world just beyond the veil. Dormer ends up shooting his partner Hap (Martin Donovan), seemingly mistakenly, but the fact he’d told Dormer he would cut a deal once they returned to civilisation – thereby probably ending Dormer’s career – adds less uncertainty and more enigma. Not even Dormer knows, truly, if he intentionally shot the man by the end, as the ravages of insomnia have claimed him. All of this Finch understands and uses to compromise Dormer, to twist his resolve.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento

Robin Williams really is excellent in a role incredibly against type. Finch is ultimately exposed as a fairly low-grade creep, writing in poor crime novels no one will see outside of Alaska veritable confessions in his storytelling, who killed a girl because she laughed at his ageing masculinity. Williams nevertheless plays him straight, plays him as someone punching above his weight. Dormer even knows this, saying when he’s more lucid: “You’re my job. You’re what I’m paid to do. You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fucking plumber. Reasons for doing what you did? Who gives a fuck?” What Williams does is make you believe Finch is his equal.

Nolan recognised this as he discussed what might seem unusual casting:

What I thought of Robin, was, well he is an extraordinary guy to work with and he really gave what I consider to be a flawless performance. I wound up watching the film hundreds of times as we cut it, and I never hit that point with the performance where you start to see the acting. Most performances, at a point, bits start to peel off and away, but with Robin’s he was very much in that character. Not that he’s a very dark person to work with – he’s very lively and friendly and amusing to work with. He really found something within himself. I think it’s a very underrated bit of work on his part.

Before his tragic suicide just over a decade later, Williams would further push himself out of his comedic origins in memorable pictures such as One Hour Photo, but Insomnia is his most down to earth and relatable dramatic performance. Though Insomnia flirts with Thomas Harris theatrics at points, with Dormer initially gifted enough to see how Kay might have died upon witnessing the body (very Will Graham-style), Finch is not the grandiose villain of those books or films. He is a freak, sure, but you could get into a conversation with him down your local supermarket. He is frighteningly ordinary. He just lives in a world Nolan portrays as extraordinary thanks to Dormer’s temporal experience, pushing him into a liminal place where nothing makes sense.


What I really like about Insomnia is how conventional and basic the undercurrents are. The criminal plot is intentionally thin. Most TV detectives would have it worked out in one episode. There is no labyrinthian conspiracy, no grand theatrics. There is just a middle aged man who beat a teenage girl to death because she laughed at his sexual overtures. There is just entitled misogyny and grievance. And the only reason Dormer is so compromised is because of what Nolan puts him through. The story is never about Finch, or capturing Finch. It’s about what the case does to Dormer. It’s about how it makes Dormer ‘wake up’, perversely, to where he went wrong.

“Don’t lose your way” is the last advice he gives Ellie, when she’s prepared to destroy evidence to protect his reputation, as he lies dying. Dormer finally understands the man he became – a compromised man. Even Finch understands they’re not exactly the same: “You’re a good man. I know that. Even if you’ve forgotten it.” But Dormer has completely lost who he is, which is where thematically the setting and Dormer’s waking nightmare resonate. The case actualises how much Dormer, back in a more conventional police world, became lost in the mist. Shooting Hap literalises this. He no longer understands right from wrong, until the very end, when he steers another good person away from the same path. The choice of Dormer’s final words are fitting. He implores Ellie, having saved her from Finch’s attempts to save his own skin, to “let me sleep”. Death is how Dormer escapes his waking dreamworld.

While Insomnia doesn’t compare on a visual scale to Nolan’s later, bravura work, it certainly does track on a thematic level with ideas the director loves to explore. He seeks out those cracks in the world, those spaces whether in dreams, or magic, or time, even space itself, inside which journeys can live and the kind of morally or emotionally compromised men like Dormer can live. All the while, he is drawn to the classic, to noir trappings, to epic canvases ultimately reduced to the most personal of relationships and moments. Insomnia’s might be his first. His next will begin what could be the first and only trilogy he ever makes, breathing new live into one of popular culture’s more tragic creations.

As he asks with Dormer, Nolan’s next question is simple: why do we fall?


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