Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2002)

3. Insomnia

First off, let’s begin by saying I’ve never seen the original Norwegian film that this is a remake of. I intend to, since it sounds awesome, but, as it is now, there won’t be any comparison between the two. That will have to wait for later.

Secondly, the detective genre is, at the risk of sounding obvious, overplayed. In between the million of detective novels, forensic shows, and countless films, we’ve probably seen just about every variation on the police detective formula that you could possibly think of. Especially in the aftermath of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven,” the gritty “detective chases murderer” genre is really overplayed. So, when working in such an obviously well-known genre, it’s less about reinventing the wheel then it is spinning around the parts within the machine. While the story of a guilty, dirty cop developing a relationship with the killer he’s pursuing is hardly fresh, “Insomnia” succeeds never the less. It’s the strength of the performances and Nolan’s inventive direction that elevates the material.

One of the things I find really interesting in the movie is that all three of its central stars are, perhaps, as overplayed as the genre they find themselves in. Al Pacino rarely actually acts anymore, frequently giving wildly uneven performances while coasting on his legend in unmitigated schlock. You never know anymore if you’re getting “one of the greatest actors of his generation” Pacino, or “I sure love money!” Pacino. Well, I’ll say this, he actually gives a pretty good performance here. He manages to convey someone who’s consciousness is being slowly eroded away, by the inability to sleep, by a lifetime of guilt, by the tricky case he’s on. It’s ultimately the morally grey ground he branches into that really makes him interesting. He throws himself into the part and makes Dormer a captivating protagonist.

Robin Williams has two modes: Totally out of control manic, crowd pleasing lunatic or melodramatic occasional Oscar winner. He’s shown plenty of legitimate talent over the years but, by now, he’s just as tiresome as Al. This movie came out in 2002 and felt a little bit like the middle chapter of a trilogy for Williams, between guilty pleasure “Death to Smoochy” and the predictable but still captivating “One Hour Photo.” All the movies came out in the same year and in each he played a grossly unsympathetic character. This might be one of his best turns because, amazingly, he’s nether mugging for the crowd’s admiration or the Academy’s. He’s just playing the part to the best of his ability and, surprise, he’s ability is actually pretty extensive. Walter Finch proves to be a fascinating character, not a psychopath but deranged none the less.

I’ve never warmed up to Hilary Swank and, I say this with honestly, this is the first performance of her’s where I just didn’t want to punch her in her big stupid horse teeth the whole time. It’s an organic performance of an intelligent character which you actually like. Of further not, this is a strong female character in a Nolan film that is neither evil or dead by the end. So there’s that.

What truly shoots “Insomnia” over the top is the atmospheric visuals. Wither it be the thick billowing fog, the beautiful nature photography of the glaciers and Alaskan wilderness, or the way constant day is made as unsettling as deep night, a unique, visually arresting picture is created. The short moments when Dormer either hallucinates or almost passes out could’ve been troublesome, overly showy or interruptive. These “shock” moments are ingrained organically. They designed to put the audience even further into the protagonist’s head.

My only real complaint with “Insomnia” is, after an exciting 110 minute movie, the shoot-out climax, though well-done, is a little disappointing. You feel like the talented people involved could’ve thought of a more interesting way to wrap things up but instead fell back on conventional Hollywood theatrics. Though it mostly wins back any lost points with the natural, down-beat ending.

It might not redefine the often-told tale, but “Insomnia” is a worthy effort anyway. If nothing else, it’s an important film for Nolan as a director. This was his stepping stone film from smaller indie efforts to the big studio pictures that would truly launch him to the forefront of the film world. [Grade: B+]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

If I recall correctly, Insomnia and Panic Room were released pretty close together. My two favorite directors doing genre pictures and doing them well! Insomnia wins out, though, for having a more interesting story and more effective suspense sequences (also: it IS better than the original). Good on job on Nolan for proving he can handle Hollywood material.