Although remakes and sequels have always been Hollywoodís bread and butter, one canít deny an inordinate increase in the number of re-imaginings being cranked out of the studio machine as of late. Itís not surprising, since the name recognition adds an element of certainty to the box office prospects that an original project canít manage. Understandably, thereís a growing backlash against remakes with horror and thriller remakes being singled out for particularly harsh criticism. A fair point, since they are almost as omnipresent in the 2000ís as sequels were in the 1980s.
With so much product coming out the law of averages dictates that at least some of them will be good. Every now and then thereís even a great one - one good enough to make all the awful ones worth sitting through. The American remake of Insomnia has a spectacular pedigree: director Christopher Nolan, three Oscar-winning leads (Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank), producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh and is based on an acclaimed Norwegian film. This is one remake that wonít put you to sleep.
Veteran detectives Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are called to Nightmute, Alaska to assist in a murder investigation. The two cops are under investigation by Internal Affairs in Los Angeles, and Dormer is worried that Hap will break under the pressure and sell him out. The small town police are ill equipped to deal with a possible serial killer. The LAís duoís captain, a friend of the captain in Nightmute suggests they go and lend their expertise while the situation in LA cools down. The case: a young girl, Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe), was beaten to death and then methodically cleansed of evidence before her body was dumped. The profile of the murderer suggests that this murder is just the beginning of a series.
Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) is their liaison/chauffeur and has a case of hero worship with Dormer. On a stakeout to trap the killer, Hap is accidentally shot and killed by Dormer. Dormer lies about what actually happened but the murderer, a mystery writer named Walter Finch (Robin Williams), witnessed the shooting. Finch then begins calling Dormer at the police station and needling him which leads to a face to face confrontation where Finch is able to get leverage on Dormer.
When sheís assigned to write a report on the shooting, Ellie begins to suspect what really happened but canít prove it. Dormer, meanwhile, is torn between continuing the deception and coming clean about Hapís death. All this is set against the unnerving, never-setting Alaskan sun. As the days wear on with no sleep, Dormer (and the audience) becomes unhinged leading to a climax thatís superficially a typical thriller shootout, but is actually a clever study in moral ambiguity.
At first, Insomnia seems like a typical thriller, albeit one with stronger visuals and a better pedigree than most. As the story begins to unfold and the focus shifts from the murder investigation to the psychological cat and mouse game between Dormer and Finch, a great deal of complexity of plotting and of character is revealed to us. Itís only after the movie is over are we completely gobsmacked by how effortless the film weaves its story, shifting focus without ever confusing the audience or losing its grip on their attention. There are several misdirections employed, but they all tie back into the main story so we donít feel like weíve been led into blind corners over and over.
The frigid Alaskan setting stands in stark contrast to the story, which is probably the warmest and most accessible one Nolanís yet directed. While his films are usually coolly intellectual, this film whirls around a man just barely able to control his emotions. Insomnia was made during Pacinoís overacting, post Glengarry Glen Ross years but Nolan is able to reign him in and he gives a performance thatís maybe not equal to but still worthy of the performances that carved his legacy.
Themes of betrayal run deep in the story - betrayal of self, betrayal of principal, betrayal of ethics. The interesting thing is how the film is willing to explore betrayal far beyond the superficial aspects that most films do. While Hap is betrayed by his partner not because of the shooting, but because of the cover up after the fact, and Finch betrays Kayís trust in him, the most interesting betrayal is Willís betrayal of Ellieís faith in him as a role model. It marks the beginning of her emergence from girlish innocence to maturity. Without his betrayal, she mightíve spent her entire life in Barney Fife-ish naivety. Hard lessons are often the most important ones to learn.
Another interesting element is the contrast between Dormer and Ellie. While Finch and Dormer are playing increasingly convoluted mind games, Ellie is solving the crime with good old fashioned, honest police work. Although she learns a tough lesson at the end of the movie, she still manages to hold on to the elements of her immature self that would benefit her as a police officer: her dogged determination in pursuit of the truth.
Hilary Swank looks adorable in Insomnia, probably the best she ever looked during her Oscar years. Sheís an actress that has talent but not a huge range; put her in the right role and she can knock it out the park every time, but in the wrong role sheís just painful to watch - her turn in The Black Dahlia is the worst kind of teeth gratingly awful wretch. Cynicism and edge arenít really her forte. NaÔvetť looks good on her. She has an unconventional prettiness and slightly awkward charm and roles that capitalize on those assets really do her justice. The filmmakers were savvy enough to recognize that just because an actress is an Oscar winner doesnít mean that you can cast her in any role. Sheís fantastic in Insomnia.
Although advertised as a Silence of the Lambs style thriller, Insomnia is about so much more than that. The murder that gets the plot started is really just window dressing to the real story. Itís kind of a wonder, then, that the filmmakers thought to cast a big actor in the relatively small of role of Finch and that Robin Williams agreed to do it. Heís absolutely fantastic in what little screen time he has: calm, cool, superficially friendly but with an edge of menace and insanity just below the surface. Heís so good here (and in One Hour Photo, released the same year) that you canít help but feel a bit cheated that he spent the bulk of his career doing comedies. He really is a fantastic dramatic actor.
The story shifts focus as new complications arise making the story developments unpredictable and keeps the viewer on edge and in suspense without giving the impression that the filmmakers are jerking the audience around arbitrarily. It plays tough, but it plays fair which makes the resolution to the story far more satisfying than similar endings in other thrillers.
As an aside, it bears noting that The Ginger Snaps girls, Emily Perkins and Katherine Isabelle, both have small roles as friends of Kay Connell.
Insomnia comes to Blu-ray presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40. For the most part, the 1080p transfer looks gorgeous. The sunny Alaskan wilderness is beautifully represented with sharp greens and blues that really pop and thereís an amazing amount of fine detail in the overhead shots of the glaciers. The scenes on the foggy waterfront show no sign of compression artifacts, colour banding or any other issue youíd expect to wreck havoc with the compression. As befitting a more recent film, the source material is clean and free of major flaws. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a great deal of artificial smoothing added to some scenes. Al Pacinoís usually craggy face looks unnaturally smooth and in brightly lit daylight scenes, flesh tones are a little too pink. A generally great transfer with a few glaring flaws.
The audio is a bit better than the video. Insomnia depends on a moody sound field for a large part of its effectiveness and the DTS-HD 5.1 track fulfills this wonderfully. Dialogue is crisp and always audible. A large portion of the dialogue is delivered in hushed tones one moment, then shouting the next. Despite this, thereís never any clipping or distortion during these swings. Best of all is the subtly throbbing bass that really adds to the tension and feelings of anxiety. All low end should be this effectively utilized.
Thereís a wealth of supplements on this release of Insomnia, ported over from the DVD.
First up, we have a commentary by director Christopher Nolan. For this commentary scenes in the movie are reshuffled into shooting order, with subtitles denoting the shooting day and the scenes being shot. Nolan gives a lot of insight into to his directorial choices from why scenes were shot on a particular day, to the cameras used, lighting choice, etc. It can be dry and technical at times but for anybody with even a passing interest in directing and what that job entails, there are few commentaries I can think of that would be more illuminating than this one.
Next we have a scene specific commentary with Hilary Swank, screenwriter Hillary Seitz, cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley and editor Dody Dorn. The option is provided to watch each participantís section individually, or all together over the course of the entire film. Hereís the breakdown on the individual sections:
Hilary Swank (2:36) introduces the commentary and talks about working with Pacino and how her esteem for him as an actor is reflected in Ellieís esteem for Will. I wish sheíd contributed more; sheís a charming speaker and clearly has intelligence and insight to share.
The other Hillary, Screenwriter Hillary Seitz (11:25), is afforded more time and she uses it well. She mainly talks about her concept for the remake and how she brought the subtextual issues in the original into the foreground as a way to make the remake a film that could stand on its own while still being a good companion piece to the original.
Cinematographer Wally Pfister (8:11) talks technical: lighting, camera moves. Interesting stuff, but thereís a lot of overlap between his comments here and some of the other features.
Nathan Crowley, the production designer, oddly seems to talk mostly over location scenes and establishing shots so for most of the scant 4:42 he contributes, thereís a disconnect between what heís saying and what weíre seeing. Guess the scenes he wanted to comment on had already been commented on.
Finally editor Dody Dorn (14:34) talks about the process of shaping the film and coaxing the greatest effect for each individual scene. Interestingly, she talks about how footage was culled from scenes that were excised and seamlessly placed back into the film proper.
Itís an interesting way to approach a commentary, and itís nice that everybody gets a chance to speak about their area of expertise but, with the exception of Swankís, the segments tend to come off as sterile and disconnected. I suppose thatís appropriate considering Nolanís style, but I really missed that interplay and energy and group commentary can have. Still itís not bad, and having the option of watch each segment of the commentary individually certain helps.
A real disappointment is the featurette 180į: A Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino. What should have been an illuminating conversation between two masters of their craft, it winds up being 17 minutes and 10 seconds of Nolan and Pacino sipping tea and whispering conspiratorially, with Pacino name-dropping Robert DeNiro and Sydney Lumet while Nolan barely speaks above a whisper. Pretentious and totally misses the mark.
Day for Night: Making the Movie (7;56) is a brief behind the scenes thatís a cut above your usual studio produced EPK fluff. Producer Steven Soderbergh imparts more insight in his one minute of screen time than either Nolan or Pacino did in seventeen. The real star here, though, is Robin Williams who is conspicuously absent from the rest of the special features. Despite the preponderance of awful, cringe inducing comedies on his resume, Williams is actually a fantastic actor and he has a lot to say about how he crafted his character, Finch, as well as the challenges of working with Pacino, whose method acting is in direct conflict with Williamsí more free form style. My only complaint is that itís simply not long enough.
In the Fog (6:10) is a collection of behind the scenes footage that can be played with commentary either by cinematographer Wally Pfister or production designer Nathan Crowley. Itís mostly footage of location scouting and setting up the pivotal scene by the lake. Not much insight, and both participants make the same ď large boulderĒ joke. Glad theyíre in charge of the look of the film and not the dialogue.
An additional scene, running 3:03, and presented in non-anamorphic widescreen can be played with or without commentary by the director. Itís a good and interesting scene that actually reinforces some of the themes in the film, but itís essentially extraneous dialogue that literalises things that the theatrical version implies.
An extremely dishonest theatrical trailer is included. The ominous voice over makes the film sound like itís a snowbound Silence of the Lambs. It emphasizes the last half hour of the film and doesnít even mention Pacinoís partner, a character central to the plot.
Lastly thereís Eyes Wide Open (7:27) a discussion with specialists in the field of sleep disorders as well as patients suffering from insomnia. The insomniacs perspective is not really applicable since Pacnioís character is suffering from stress induced insomnia and not chronic insomnia but I appreciated that, Unlike most features of this sort, the experts actually comment on events in the film and how accurate they are to real life. Itís a fascinating little feature that doesnít overstay its welcome.
Itís really an amazing feat for a director so early in his career to juggle a complex, layered story, give it visual style, keep tight control on the pacing and still manage to coax great performances from the entire cast. Christopher Nolan is undeniably a master of mainstream filmmaking. At their best (Inception) his films are stylish, cerebral and entertaining; at their worst (The Prestige, his only real misfire) theyíre cold, distant and unsatisfying. Insomnia ranks in the middle of his oeuvre, but thatís hardly faint praise when weíre talking about a body of work as distinguished as Nolanís. Insomnia is a fantastic thriller that has depth of character to rival its spectacular visuals. With strong audio/visual presentation and a collection of supplements that probe deeper than the usual fluff pieces, the Blu-ray release of Insomnia is an essential disc for anybody interested in cerebral character pieces, thrillers or the filmmaking process.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Great review, but I can't believe you threw The Prestige in front of the bus like that.
Yeah, good review, but I consider The Prestige one of his best films and a highly underrated film.
Oh, The Prestige is certainly well acted and shot and clever in that icy, cerebral Nolan sort of way, but it's saddled with an absolutely terrible third act that almost entirely negates the hard work the first two acts were doing.
watched Insomnia last night. A very good film. Not sure why it's 'R' rated though.
The only things I disliked was the first Police station scene when they are talking to one another; the editing leaves much to be desired (a lot of newer films done in the last decade are guilty of this)- cutting to each actor every one second when they say something or to see their reaction to something someone has said! - it's bloody annoying going that quick. :mad: An open shot of all involved is enough and far kinder in that kind of scenario with more than 3 or 4 people.
Al Pacino can be difficult to hear/understand sometimes that you have to rewind - maybe I should have watched with headphones :o
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