Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan – Insomnia (2002)

Director Dissection is a series of posts highlighting a specific director with the intention of reviewing all of their directorial efforts, while hopefully gaining a better understanding of their work as a whole and showcasing their lesser known films. Christopher Nolan, a favorite of mine, is the first in the series and my goal is to get through his filmography before his next movie, The Dark Knight Rises, is released on July 20, 2012. Insomnia is available on Netflix Watch Instantly. 

Previous posts: Following (1998), Memento (2000)

Insomnia. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros., 2002. 118 mins.

If you were to take out the Batman movies from Christopher Nolan’s filmography, Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception, could you find the imposter? Let’s try this out. Memento, the story of a man who cannot form new memories is hunting down the man who raped and murdered his wife. The film’s plot is presented in a non-linear format, where scenes are shown in reverse order, interspersed with scenes from a previous time shown in chronological order and in black and white. The Prestige, two rival magicians compete to create the best magic trick in 19th century London. Both fueled by obsession, their endeavors lead to disastrous results. The film makes use of a non-linear narrative structure to present the magicians’ transition from friendship while working together as stage hands of the same show, to rivalry, deceit, and hatred. Insomnia, a veteran LAPD homicide detective, who is under investigation, is sent with his partner to Alaska to help in the case of a murdered girl. When he shoots his partner during the chase of the murder suspect through heavy fog, he decides to blame the murder suspect. His morals are put into question as he tries to cover up his shooting and apprehend the murderer, which only gets more complicated while dealing with the 24-hour sun and the murderer who witnessed him shooting his partner. It is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Inception, the technology to enter and present new ideas into others’ dreams leads to… wait a second. No need to continue. Insomnia is the sore thumb.

Insomnia (2002) Dir. Christopher Nolan

In 2001, Warner Bros. had a script, written by Hillary Seitz, for an American remake of the 1997 Norwegian film, and with the influence of Steven Soderbergh, took a chance hiring Christopher Nolan, whose Memento had not yet become the hit that it would be a few months later. It was Nolan’s first big budget production and its success would lead to him getting the opportunity to direct Batman BeginsIn fact, since Insomnia, other than Warner Bros., Chritopher Nolan has not worked for any other film studio.

Insomnia stars Al Pacino as Will Dormer, who finds himself in a moral quandary when he he shoots his partner, whether by accident or on purpose, when he tries to cover it up by blaming the murder suspect (Robin Williams) they were chasing. Coupled with the fact that Dormer is being investigated back home by Internal Affairs in regards to his previous cases, and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) was planning on testifying for immunity. To help with the murder investigation they are aided by the Nightmute, Alaska police force, including  Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a wide-eyed rookie cop who idolizes Dormer for his previous work.

Ellie is put in charge of investigating Hap’s death and Dormer goes about trying to throw her off the scent. Meanwhile,the murder suspect, Walter Finch,     lets Dormer know that he saw him shoot his partner, and proposes that in exchange for his silence, Dormer frame the victim’s abusive boy friend. Dormer has to choose between his reputation and the truth, and the guilt of shooting his partner coupled with the endless sunlight cause him to go many days without sleep. His insomnia wears away his decision making and his psyche is affected, hallucinating, being hypnotized by the sounds around him, and questioning whether or not he meant to shoot Hap.

Before starting the Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan series I had seen Insomnia (2002) three or four times, without ever seeing the Norwegian original. I didn’t think I could write a respectable review without having seen the film that inspired the remake, especially because the two films are so similar in plot and even share identical scenes. So I watched it to see how the two films compare.

The Norwegian original is directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, and stars Stellan Skarsgård as the lead homicide detective, named Jonas Engstrom. The biggest differences between the two, besides location change (Skjoldbjærg sets the story in northern Norway), are the back story of the protagonist, the relationship of Dormer/Burr and Engstrom/Hilde Hagen (the character that inspired Swank’s character), and the end of the film. These changes in plot drastically shift the protagonist from a sexually deprived character that has completely lost his way to a good cop who has made morally questionable decisions to keep bad guys behind bars.

Stellan Skarsgard as Jonas Engström in Insomnia (1997)

In Nolan’s Insomnia, Dormer is being investigated by Internal Affairs for possible misdeeds during his previous cases. Throughout the film you see images of blood, and the viewer finds out that to ensure the imprisonment of a child molester and murderer, Dormer planted evidence on him, specifically the victim’s blood on the suspect’s clothing. Dormer and Eckhart have a conversation early on in the film about their situation and Dormer justifies his actions because the bad guy was behind bars. His actions can be seen as heroic, a fight against the system that would have let the man walk. This set-up allows for the questioning of Dormer shooting Eckhart, even if that plot point does not hold much water.

In Skjoldbjærg’a InsomniaEngstrom has been fired from the Swedish police force and has found a new job in Norway as a homicide detective. Early in the film Engstrom overhears his colleagues talking about his past, and the reason why he was fired. He was discovered in a hotel room with a key witness for one of his cases. This suggests that Engstrom is sexually frustrated, and his later actions (forcing himself on the hotel receptionist, secretly watching Eilert and Frøya have sex from behind an open door, and succumbing to Frøya’s advances in his car) only strengthen that character flaw. These two back stories set up the protagonists as different people. Dormer is a good guy and Engstrom is a bad guy. Walter Finch tries to convince Dormer that they are in similar situations and are similarly flawed individuals, but really Engstrom and Jon Holt are the same.

The remake also makes a bigger character out of Ellie Burr than the original. Ellie Burr is the cop that Dormer was when he was her age, naive, eager, and idealistic. And moreover, she idolizes Dormer to the point that she has studied his cases, she believes him to be the best detective. While Hilde Hagen plays a similar role in the plot of the original, Hagen is older and her character is not as developed. They both choose to not turn in the detective but the way Nolan’s film is set up, Dormer, as the redeemable character, saves Burr from turning down the path he chose, by convincing her to turn him in. Even though he does not live in the end, he has accepted his fate and has saved the life and integrity of his pupil. Hagen’s decision has left the monster to continue his downward spiral, with his guilt still in tact.

The biggest difference between the two films is the ending. In a traditional movie if the good guy lives or the bad guy dies than the ending is happy, or at least triumphant. The opposite can be said of both films. Dormer dies in a gun fight with Walter Finch, who is planning on killing Burr, who he believes is on to him. Dormer kills Finch and saves Burr. Also he is able to save Burr’s integrity and idealism, by convincing her to keep the shell that indites him with the shooting of Eckhart. It is a triumphant ending , even though Dormer dies. He is able to finally sleep, because he no longer has guilt for his past transgressions.

Engstrom hunts down Holt to alert him that Hagen is looking further into the case even though Eilert has been arrested, but Holt believes he has come to kill him. During the chase Holt falls through a rotten pier, hits his head, and drowns. Hagen then reveals her knowledge of his shell that was found at the crime scene, and she chooses to not report it, instead giving it back to Engstrom. Although he is able to alert the police about the victim’s dress left in Holt’s home, implicating the right man in the murder, Engstrom is left alive and well. The final scene is of him drving away from the small town. The screen fades to black, except for his eyes which are open and unflinching, still wide awake. Engstrom is not relieved of his guilt, and can only be seen as monster on par with Holt.

In the two movies that consist of mainly the same scenes, characters, and plot, these few changes turned the detective from a dark, troubling, sexually deprived man in power, into a cop who fights for what is right, even if that gets him into moral dilemmas. The dark aspect of the protagonist is lost by turning the film into a Hollywood affair, with a redeemable ending for Dormer. As an audience member you root for Dormer because he stands for justice even if occasionally he must go against the law to achieve it. If his decisions to cover up his shooting of Eckhart were selfish, because he didn’t want to get caught, the Internal Affairs aspect of the plot  gives him an out, because if he is found out than his previous cases will get thrown out. When comparing this to the moral complexities of Engstrom, the more interesting depiction if clearly Engstrom. In the original Insomnia you see a man who has lost his previous job because of his sexual suppression, and he is given the chance to try and avoid blame for the death of his partner when someone mistakenly assumes that he was killed by Holt. Engstrom is in a downward spiral of bad decisions, and his mental state reflects this more believably than using Dormer’s story for mental unrest.

Clearly, I believe that the characterization of the detective and the story is more believable as well as more enjoyable in the original, but many of these distinctions could easily be script problems (which Nolan did not write, but it is impossible to determine how much he is to blame). I will say the remake does outshine the original in the style and cinematography, even though many of the great images were established in the original.

Up to this point in Nolan’s career, his films have done an outstanding job of putting the viewer in the shoes of mentally fragile protagonists (with the non-linear narrative mostly in Memento and Following), and this is where Insomnia truly shines. The use of bright harsh light, and the sparing use of darkness, masterfully portrays the physical torment the endless light is on Dormer. The bedroom scenes, while using the same techniques as the original, are some of the best in the film in portraying the deteriorating mind of him. The scene in particular that comes to mind is when the waitress comes into his room to see about all the noise he is making, and he complains about how bright it is in his room. She says that it is actually really dark, and then turns on the light.

You do not realize how dark it truely is until this point, when it becomes painfully obvious how far gone Dormer actually is. His insomnia, a symbol of his guilt and integrity, has gotten worse through the film and this is the low point for him. In addition to the great use of lighting, Nolan includes scenes where Dormer seems to be hypnotized by the world around him. He is in the police department and gets sucked into the noise and movement of the fan. Other noises grab his attention completely, a stapler, the coffee maker, and an officer opening and closing a filing cabinet. While this is done in the original film, Nolan gets to the psychological core of Dormer’s internal crisis. This is also the first time in any of Nolan’s films that he, along with his cinematographer Wally Pfister of every movie since Memento, was able to create a mind blowing setting, from the Alaskan wilderness and the small town Squamish, British Columbia (where they shot).

Possibly the best directed scene explains the relationship between Dormer and Finch is when they meet on a dirt road towards the end of the film (shown below). Dormer arrives and walks over to Finch who is sitting down (much like Dormer in the photo below). Dormer explains that he is going to go tell the truth about everything, the murder, him shooting Eckhart, and his cover-up of both. But Finch makes it clear to him that he isn’t thinking clearly. All evidence of them conspiring is gone and the accusations wouldn’t stick. The case against the boyfriend is solid and Dormer still has his reputation intact. While this discussion is happening Dormer has gone from the man in power, grabbing Finch and slamming him up against the metal support beams. As he realizes that even telling the truth at this point probably will not end his guilt and his problems, he slumps away from Finch and alomst in a trance walks over to the other side of the road and falls down, absolutely exhausted. Finch has now stood up and is looking over him in the same way the scene started for Dormer. This scene exemplifies the power struggle throughout the film between the two characters, but also shows that Finch has out played his macho police routine. Dormer has fallen in with a criminal through his delirium and bad judgement.

While I would say that Nolan’s Insomnia is a slight downgrade from the original, if you were to take the best parts of both, the story and characterization from the original, and the camera work and techniques to express the themes of the film from the remake, you would have a near masterpiece. And both films are improvements from traditional cop films that deal with similar issues. 

Insomnia is effectively the last film of Christopher Nolan’s early career. From here he would gain massive popularity in Hollywood and among audiences with the release of his next film and the first Batman movie in eight years with Batman Begins. He has had the opportunity to work from his own scripts for the rest of his films to date. Insomnia is the biggest departure from Nolan’s style, but proved that he could handle a substantial budget picture and work with A-list actors.

6 out of 10 stars – ★★★★★★

“A good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t let him.” – Ellie Burr

***Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan will continue with his 2005 film Batman Begins***


Other Observations:

♦ In the original Insomnia the murder victim’s name is Tanja. In the remake her friend who is seeing her ex-boyfriend is named Tanya. Hopefully not just a coincidence.

♦ Nolan uses similar techniques used in Memento, to show Leonard’s wife and the attack, to show the murder of Kay.

♦ Dormer on the plane to Nightmute looks tired already, and probably had guilt from previous transgressions. When Ellie gives him her report to sign, Dormer tells her to be sure of her facts for the second time in the film. Is he asking to be caught in his lie?


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