Insomnia is a remake of a fine 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Though the screenplay of the new film is credited to Hillary Seitz, its plotline adheres closely to the 1997 original. What is different is the tone and the approach to the story.
The film is a police procedural, an investigation into the murder of a 17 year old girl in a small town in Alaska. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is a veteran LAPD detective called in with his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), to help solve the case. Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) is on the local police force and is an admirer of Dormer’s work; she’s the classic starry-eyed beginner. "It’s the small stuff," Dormer tells her. Before it’s all over, Burr has learned fast; there’s pointed irony in her role–she’s the only principal who doesn’t have something to hide.
The suspects include the murdered girl’s abusive boyfriend, Randy Seitz (Jonathan Jackson), and a writer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who was her mentor and friend. The principal investigation is complicated by Dormer’s problems with his superiors at LAPD, problems aggravated by Eckhart.
Insomnia explores the rationalizations of the bad guys and the vulnerabilities of the good guys. It acknowledges that things are rarely black and white, but are more often complicated in shades of gray. The plot actually hangs solidly together (more than can be said of director Christopher Nolan’s last effort, Memento). In all, it’s an intelligent piece of work which immediately raises it above the level of the current bumper crop of summer trash (and it’s only June…).
The film, shot mostly in British Columbia, has beautiful northern settings which lend it a certain scrubbed grandeur. It does seem odd that, taking place in a town that calls itself the halibut capital of the world, there’shardly a fishing boat to be seen. On the other hand, a mass of logs moving downstream to a shipping point or a mill makes a great location for a chase scene.
Summertime in this part of the world means there’s little if any darkness and much is made of Dormer’s inability to sleep.Of course, that conceit works metaphorically as well–the sun casts its endless light leaving no dark places; so, too, does the light of conscience penetrate into dark places of guilt. More sleep is lost for the latter reason than the former.
Nolan’s focus is on telling his story clearly, which he does successfully, and moving it briskly along as the multifacted plot unfolds. He doesn’t dwell much on the philosophical points or the rather existential tone which was so subtly struck in the Norwegian original. That film also had a far grittier, more ordinary look to it, without grand scenery to dilute the moral conundrum and the atmosphere of spiritual ennui which made it so powerful.
But the 1997 film was subtitled and not widely seen; this Insomnia has been packaged for the mass market. The story remains a good one and the ironies are not lost. Nolan’s Insomnia picks up on all the intelligence of the original scenario and comes up with a worthy, if not particularly distinguished piece of entertainment.