For our 101st re-view for 10YA, we are happy to introduce a new writer to the site. His name is Ryan Ruby, he occasionally suffers from insomnia, and that’s all the intro you’re getting to his re-view of Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Al Pacino as Detective Will Dormer
Robin Williams as Walter Finch
Hilary Swank as Ellie Burr
Maura Tierney as Rachel Clement
Martin Donovan as Detective Hap Eckhart
“That’s what I do, I assign guilt” –Will Dormer
I saw this film in the theater when it came out. This was Christopher Nolan’s second film after Memento, which I had seen previously. At the time, I found it an interesting thriller with a great cast and executed quite well. I actually really enjoyed the uncharacteristically subtle performance of Al Pacino. He was fresh off some of his most bombastic performances (Scent of a Woman, The Devil’s Advocate, Any Given Sunday, Heat, etc.) where he had perfected the Al Pacino style of acting. “I speak very softly for a moment, THEN I SCREAM AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS!” Here he is much more reserved, flowing seamlessly between world weariness and what appears to be a heartfelt desire to help a young cop who obviously idolizes him. A very capable performance is turned in by Hilary Swank, who by this point was gaining a reputation for being simply professional in her portrayals. (This is a compliment.)
The real reason I wanted to see this in the theaters though was for Robin Williams. I had read that he called this one of his entries in his “Dark Trilogy” where he would be taking on roles which were quite different from his previous typecasting. (He’d previously been either wacky/nutty, or sensitive/bearded.) Other entries in this “Dark Trilogy” were One Hour Photo, which is an incredibly uncomfortable film to watch (this is another compliment), and the criminally underrated Death to Smoochy, one of my favorite dark comedies.
The film opens on a twin engine sea plane flying over a remote snowy, wooded area on the way to Nightmute, AK, the self-proclaimed “Halibut Fishing Capitol of the World.” You have the feeling that this place is nearly totally isolated even in the summer. The streets are wide but unpopulated. There are no storefronts to be seen. Aside from fishing, what does this town have to offer other than drunken brawls at the local tavern after payday? We see Will Dormer (Pacino) looking out the window on the approach to Nightmute, he looks so unbelievably weary and exhausted. He has the look of someone who has been up nights for a long time.
Once the flight lands, we meet Detective Burr (Swank). She is absolutely beaming with pride to be finally meeting Dormer, who we learn was the subject of a paper she wrote for the police academy. She is obviously green and fresh out of the Academy, but she is doggedly determined to impress her hero.
Dormer and his partner Eckhart (Donovan) are in town ostensibly on loan from the LAPD to assist with a recent murder of a 17-year-old student, Kay Connell, in Nightmute which the local police have been unable to solve. It becomes immediately apparent that the Nightmute police department is in over their heads when Dormer is able to find a piece of physical evidence on the body which the locals have missed entirely. The killer has clipped the Connell’s fingernails and washed her body. This removes all evidence that might be used to trace him, but represents a calmed approach to the aftermath of the killing, and suggests a type of intimacy between the killer and victim.
Having shown up the locals, Dormer visits the Connell’s home and begins to take charge of the investigation. He wants to drag the boyfriend out of school, but is embarrassed to discover that even though it is bright light outside, it is actually 10pm local time. The sun apparently never sets at this time of year.
Rebuffed, Dormer and Eckhart retire to the local hotel run by Rachel Clement (Tierney). Here we learn the real reason that Dormer and Eckhart have been sent all the way to Nightmute. They are currently both under Internal Affairs investigation. Eckhart informs Dormer that he intends to turn State’s Evidence to avoid prosecution, leaving Dormer out to dry. Dormer is disgusted by this turn from someone he considered a friend.
The next morning, the team discovers Connell’s backpack at a decrepit shack near the water. They search it for evidence and find little; instead they decide to use the backpack as bait to draw the killer out. Placing calls to local radio stations informing the public that they are looking for Connell’s backpack, they take up a stakeout of the shack as a heavy fog moves in.
A hooded figure approaches the shack, but is alerted to police presence by one of the local rookies. He flees and in the fog a chase ensues. Dormer sees a figure through the fog and fires on it. It’s only as he approaches that he discovers he’s shot his partner, Eckhart. In his dying moments, Eckhart recoils believing that Dormer has shot him intentionally. Knowing that IA will never believe he accidentally shot their only witness against him, he begins a cover-up. He finds the suspect’s weapon and pockets it, calls for help and claims that the suspect shot Eckhart. Burr is put in charge of investigation into Eckhart’s death, but this seems to be only a formality as none of the locals have any reason to disbelieve Dormer’s story.
Dormer spends another sleepless night in his hotel trying in vain to block the never ending sunlight. He receives an early morning phone call from someone claiming to be the killer. This person tells Dormer that he saw him shoot his partner and understands the he’s not sleeping. Dormer is taunted by the killer who tells him he didn’t mean to kill Connell and just wants to talk about it. Dormer hangs up.
The next day in an interview with one of Connell’s friends he learns that she was a fan of a local crime fiction writer, Walter Finch. Dormer believes that Finch was the one who called him and breaks into his apartment to gather evidence. He is discovered by Finch when he returns home leading to a chase over water on log booms, during which Dormer nearly drowns and Finch escapes.
Finch contacts Dormer again and offers him a deal to frame Connell’s abusive boyfriend for the murder in exchange for his silence about Eckhart’s shooting. He claims that Connell’s death was an accident. He simply flew into a blind rage and beat her to death when she rejected his advances. Dormer reluctantly goes about framing Connell’s boyfriend for both Eckhart and Connell’s murders, choosing to save his own reputation over framing an innocent man.
In the meantime, Burr begins finding inconsistencies in Dormer’s story, in both the physical evidence, and probable direction that the suspect flees the scene. Her suspicions are intensified by Dormer’s reluctance to cooperate with her investigation.
Dormer goes back for another sleepless night and confides in Clement that he had framed a suspected pedophile that he was convinced was guilty. “That’s what I do. I assign guilt,” he tells her.
Finch lures Burr to his house on the water with the promise of letters proving Connell’s boyfriend’s abusive nature towards her, but he intends to kill her. Dormer, realizing this, rushes to Finch’s home narrowly rescuing her. Finch retreats to a separate building while Burr confronts Dormer about Eckhart’s shooting. Dormer admits that he doesn’t know any more if he meant to shoot his partner. In the ensuing shootout with Finch, Dormer and Finch are both mortally wounded at which point Burr offers to throw away her evidence against Dormer and preserve his reputation. He stops her, imploring her not to lose her way as he has. “Just let me sleep” he says.
10 years later, this is still a great and entertaining film, but for other reasons.
Chris Nolan had no track record with me when I first saw this film. Since then I have consumed the majority of his work with rabid intensity. One of his critical director trademarks is nonlinear storytelling. Memento is the obvious first example, but The Prestige, Inception, and Batman Begins all employ this trademark. At first glance this trademark may appear to be missing from this film, which makes sense as it’s a remake of a Norwegian film, but an examination of the subject matter reveals this to be incorrect. In what I believe to be purposeful story selection, it’s not the audience whose perception of time is being screwed with, it is Dormer’s. As a sufferer of occasional insomnia, I can attest that the longer it goes the less certain you are about your place in time, and your ability to recall events with any certainty to when they occurred is deeply affected.
I also missed the examination of guilt the first time I saw this film, especially how it relates to self-imposed guilt juxtaposed with socially imposed guilt. Finch is guilty of murdering Connell by societal standards, but he feels no guilt for his actions and can therefore comport himself with impunity. He doesn’t lose any sleep over it; he reacts to everything in psychopathic calm and calculation. Dormer, by societal standards is not guilty in the abstract of murdering Eckhart; it was a simple case of misidentification. But he feels guilty; he tries to cover it up, presumably because of his guilt over falsifying evidence against the pedophile. This guilt makes him lose sleep (it’s simply exacerbated by the never ending sunlight). It’s only when he comes to terms with his guilt that he’s able to finally sleep.
He tells us point blank, “I assign guilt, that’s what I do.” He’s clearly assigned guilt to himself which ultimately leads to his downfall.
I really enjoyed this film on a different level by searching for the subtext.
In the scene in the fog where Dormer shoots Eckhart, he draws his primary weapon and then switches to his secondary? Why? Did his gun jam, or was he purposefully switching?
Seriously, why does Dormer spend so much time trying to use masking tape to block the sunlight? Pro-tip from someone who used to work nights, aluminum foil provides total blackout.
Clement says, “There are two kinds of people in Alaska: those that are born here and those that are escaping something.” Great, but why do people stay? 24 hours of sunlight sounds great until you pay for it with 24 hours of darkness. Oh, and the -30 degree January days, and the man eating moose, and Sarah Palin.
One thing I took away from this film is a great off color joke. What has two thumbs and loves blow jobs? *Points thumbs at my chest* This guy!