Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Paul Dooley, Jonathan Jackson

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some violence and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 5/24/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

There’s always a risk involved when attempting a remake. If you stay too close to the original, there’s the possibility that your effort will essentially be redundant and unnecessary (which was the primary flaw of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho); if you venture too far away from it, there’s the possibility that you’ll miss a vital element or two of what made the original successful. Christopher Nolan’s remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia falls in the latter category in regards to the two major conflicts in the plot. Add to this the fact that the original film is only five years old and not in any real need of improvement, and there’s the question of why this got made in the first place. Nolan has not made a poor movie—his skill as a director is apparent—but he has made a poor remake and only given us a few new elements or angles that could be considered interesting additions to the material but never improvements.

Detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) have come to the small, remote Alaskan town of Nightmute to help with the investigation of the brutal murder of a seventeen-year-old girl. The girl’s body was found completely clean—fingernails trimmed, hair washed—leading Dormer to believe that the killer is knowledgeable of police procedure and may have known the victim. Assisting Dormer and Eckhart is Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a local officer and admirer of Dormer’s case history. As Dormer begins examining the girl’s life, a discovery is made. The girl’s backpack is found near an abandoned shed. Dormer decides to use it as bait for the killer and alerts the news media that the bag is missing, hoping that the killer will come and claim the forgotten piece of evidence. Plans are made, and Dormer, Eckhart, and a group of local police stakeout the shed. A man comes to take the bag, but escapes. In the chase, Dormer accidentally shoots and kills his partner, but when questioned about what happened, he states that the killer shot him.

Eventually the man responsible makes himself known to Dormer, instigating the cat and mouse game that makes up the rest of the plot. The murderer is Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a crime novelist who had a mentor relationship with the victim. Williams is atypically and effectively creepy in his role. The initial relationship between Dormer and Finch is one of shared knowledge of the other’s guilt. Finch saw Dormer shoot his partner and uses this information to force Dormer to keep the police away from him. In the original film, the Dormer character (named Engström and played by Stellan Skarsgård) goes along with the plan, which leads to a fascinating study of a severely flawed man trapped in a downward spiral of irresponsibility and sociopathic tendencies. In this version, Dormer uses the relationship to try and catch Finch. The problem is that the antithesis of the character’s job and psychology is missing. The original screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and director Erik Skjoldbjærg dealt with a man crossing one line and finding himself crossing even more. Here Dormer is a good cop who makes a mistake and tries to make up for it—the lines are clearly drawn and crossing one doesn’t mean you can’t return.

This key difference in characterization deprives the movie of the original’s complex structuring. The screenplay by Hillary Seitz takes the initial premise of the film and simplifies it to the point of diminishing the impact of the material. Beyond converting the external conflict into a less ambivalent battle of good and evil wits, the resolution of it relies on an anticlimactic and absurdly established hostage/shoot-out sequence. Dormer’s internal conflict is also explicitly defined. The script sets up hostility between Dormer and Eckhart before Dormer’s accident. Internal Affairs is investigating Dormer’s department, and Eckhart tells him that he will be cooperating with IA. This provides a back-story that could be taken as evidence that the shooting was not an accident and facilitates Dormer’s cover-up. The result is an overbearing sense of guilt for Dormer, exhibited by multiple flashes of Eckhart’s death and the emphasis on his insomnia. The town of Nightmute spends the summer in constant sunlight, and the combination of this and his guilt contributes to Dormer’s lack of sleep. Nolan spends a lot of time relating to Dormer’s condition. Perhaps this remnant of his work on Memento (where the story structure allows the audience to understand the hero’s short-term memory loss) adds some flavor to the story, but it isn’t necessary.

Perhaps the idea behind remaking Insomnia was to make an obscure foreign film more accessible to American audiences, but re-releasing the original film with wider distribution would have done the job. This interpretation contains and is highlighted by Al Pacino’s most subtle and effective work in years, and that may be all it will be remembered for. As an American thriller, it is much smarter and complex than most, but it ultimately does not do justice to its origins. The original film was a complex psychological drama with the trappings of a police procedural thriller; the update is a smart police procedural thriller with the trappings of a restricted psychological drama. I much prefer the former.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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