Ask anyone who's ever pulled an all-nighter or simply couldn't get to sleep on any given night and they'll tell you that the following day was no picnic. Irritability, lack of mental focus and, of course, sleepiness fill the order, and the longer one is deprived of some shuteye, the worse all of that gets. Psychological studies have shown that after several days of no sleep, many subjects essentially display signs of psychosis and lose some if not all of their motor skills.
That's the reason why it's a bad idea for medical schools and hospitals to run interns through extremely long shifts, as they're more apt to have a harder time concentrating and thus could make some serious mistakes.
Obviously, that's not the only profession where a lack of a good night's sleep isn't a good idea. For example, imagine an older detective trying to solve a murder case while partnered with another cop who's about to rat him out to Internal Affairs, when a bout of insomnia strikes in the Alaskan summer where the sun never sets. Then picture the murder suspect deciding to play mind games with the cop who just so happens to be carrying a loaded weapon (and is something of one himself).
That's the premise behind "Insomnia," the psychological thriller that marks director Christopher Nolan's follow-up to his masterful "Memento." A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film that starred Stellan Skarsgård in what was pretty much the same general plot (minus some new material added here), this film is a solid, character-driven piece. While it might not be as brilliant or innovative as the director's first feature length film, it nevertheless proves that he's a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood and so far is batting two for two on the cinema scorecard.
The hook of "Memento" was that the story was told in reverse chronological order where the protagonist obviously became more naïve while the viewer became more knowledgeable about the story and its all-important facts. Had the film been told in normal order, it might not have been as good and certainly would not have been as intriguing.
Here, the story progresses in a straightforward, linear fashion where the investigator suffers not from short-term memory loss, but rather a raging bout of insomnia. Accordingly, Nolan takes the viewer inside the protagonist's head, letting us witness what he's experiencing. The effect isn't as visual or visceral as, say, what occurred in the highly effective "Requiem For a Dream," although I must admit that I somewhat oddly felt drowsy during our screening.
Whether that was something Nolan and his crew managed to induce (perhaps they inserted "You're getting sleepy" title frames into the film to create the subconscious effect) or simply because I didn't get much sleep the night before (possibly in giddy anticipation of seeing if Nolan could knock one out of the theater again), the film wasn't as gripping as I hoped and imagined it would be.
That's not to say that any of it's bad. Yet, some storytelling decisions might have taken some juice out of the proceedings, at least in this viewer's opinion. The biggest problem I had with the film is that we know too much about what's going on.
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Showing no desire to hide such information, Nolan - who works from a script by Hillary Seitz (making her debut) - lets us know that the character played by Robin Williams is the killer (he admits to being so quite freely and far too early into the investigation), and that the protagonist embodied by Al Pacino was the one who accidentally shot and killed his partner.
Armed with such knowledge, the viewer obviously has superior position over the characters. For a would-be thriller replete with mind games, however, that steals and stymies a great deal of the potential fun and thunder. With the protagonist progressively losing his ability to do his job competently due to no sleep, it would have been fun, not to mention far more interesting and engaging, had Williams' character been able to mess with the detective's mind about who killed the initial victim and the cop's partner.
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As it stands and having the viewer armed with knowledge about most everything except how the story will ultimately conclude (although part of it is easy to guess), the film becomes a character-driven morality play of sorts. Since the protagonist obviously isn't squeaky clean from the get-go, coupled with what then transpires, we watch in anticipation of what will become of him.
Namely, that's whether he'll try to make things right or will continue down his path of grayness that might just turn black. The fun, contrasty symbolism of all of that is the never setting sun that results in little if any darkness being present in which evil normally resides. It's an effective bit of storytelling and production design that works rather well in keeping viewers off balance, at least to some degree.
Speaking of effective, that's only one of many praiseworthy adjectives that can be used to describe the performance by Al Pacino ("Any Given Sunday," "The Insider") as the sleepless detective. Although he's played many a cop character over his long career, this one feels as real and individual as the others. Thankfully keeping most of his performance low-key, Pacino appropriately looks haggard (perhaps he abstained from much sleep to play the part) and delivers a terrific, nebulous take on the character.
Also thankfully playing on the subdued side of things is Robin Williams ("Bicentennial Man," "The Fisher King") who's appearing in part II of his dark-side movie triad (the first being "Death to Smoochy" and the third being the upcoming "One Hour Photo"). As the murder suspect, the actor smartly avoids the histrionics and delivers a solid and occasionally unnerving performance.
Fellow Oscar winner Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry," "The Affair of the Necklace") appears as the young local cop who's drawn into a side aspect of the main case. While her character isn't as fleshed out as Pacino's or Williams,' the actress is still quite good in the role. The same holds true for Jonathan Jackson ("On the Edge," "The Deep End of the Ocean"), Maura Tierney ("Instinct," "Forces of Nature") and Martin Donovan ("Living Out Loud," "The Portrait of a Lady") in their smaller roles.
While I appreciate having the protagonist portrayed as a gray character rather than pure black or white, I think the film would have been even better had the story and its revelations been portrayed the same way. As it stands, the film is a solid, character-driven piece, with a terrific visual look and a good score, but it's not quite the brilliant, edge of your seat thriller that it seems it also wants to be. Decently told, "Insomnia" might not keep anyone up at night after seeing it, but it's good enough to rate as a 7 out of 10.