Based on a Scandinavian film of the same name, Insomnia was director Christopher Nolan’s third film and represented the first time he had worked with a big budget and named Hollywood stars. Backed by executive producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, Insomnia took $113m at the box office from a budget of $46m, but is often one of the overlooked Nolan films as it bridges the gap between low budget calling card Memento and big budget blockbuster Batman Begins.
Escaping an investigation into his methods, Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) flies to Alaska with his partner to catch a child murderer. Greeted by rookie cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), through a series of police procedurals is able to track killer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) but tragedy strikes while trying to apprehend the criminal, leading to the two men being forced to work together.
The basic premise of Insomnia falls comfortably into the category of police procedural thriller. Rather than a standard whodunit, the audience are told who the killer is very early in proceedings and the meat of the narrative drive is the uncomfortable relationship between cop and criminal. Pacino is excellent in the lead role and Nolan is actually able to get him to underplay his characters eccentricities, which means that rather than the standard ˜ranty’ Pacino, we actually have a human being to engage with. We understand the motivations of and his physical transformation from confident veteran, to possibly mad insomniac is the big highlight of the film.
Opposite him is Robin Williams, also toned down from his usual levels of manic energy and giving the best ˜straight’ performance of his career. In fact his criminal turn is so unexpected that you can’t help wondering why he hasn’t taken on more serious roles rather than endless subpar comedies. Hilary Swank completes Insomnia‘s main trio of actors and is also excellent as the rookie cop, learning from her mentor but suffering from a case of ˜never meet your hero.’
The key to the suffocating success of Insomnia is the cinematography. Long-time Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister, who got his start filming softcore porn films brings his trademark sweeping tracking shots of wild vistas to the forefront in Insomnia. From the opening scene tracking the plane as it flies over the unusual glacial formation in Alaska, Pfister creates a sense of tension through his shots. They are moody, confusing and completely wonderful and he has been a big part in creating the wonderful worlds of Christopher Nolan’s imagining.
Often overlooked in favour of big name films like Inception and The Dark Knight, but Insomnia is important for two distinct reasons. It’s not only historically important because it proved that Nolan could create a visually stunning and utterly engaging mainstream film, but it also marked the first time that he used a linear format. Insomnia was his big hello to the mainstream market and he never looked back.