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Insomnia (2002)


An unnerving murder investigation set in the wilderness of Alaska that transforms into a dissection of morals. Insomnia’s stunning visuals, solid performances, and unmatched direction make for a riveting film that continues to grow in merit and effectiveness upon each viewing. An adaptation of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s film of the same title. Insomnia captures and exceeds the deprivation, haunting scenery, and confusion of the original. Directed by the illustrious Christopher Nolan. His ability to mask the, at times, dark and violent subject matter gives credit to his subtle approach and how reputable his style and thought process is. Relying significantly, and with good reason, on its talented cast to convey the vast, shady emotions and psychological complexity throughout its runtime. Insomnia is that rare picture that accomplishes more by doing less.


In Nightmute, Alaska, a seventeen-year-old resident is found murdered. As a favour to the police chief, two Los Angeles homicide detectives are sent in to investigate. Will Dormer (Pacino) and his partner are renowned in the police world but are facing some heat in regards to a recent arrest, this puts strain on their relationship. After a few days, Dormer begins to fall victim to a severe case of Insomnia. Fighting through his extreme exhaustion and hallucinations, Dormer, his partner, and local detective Ellie Burr (Swank) continue their research until an unexpected tragedy causes everyone to become skeptical and seeking the truth.


This is the third full-length feature directed by Nolan and it arguably holds the most significance to his career. It is the last film he directed before he took on the Batman reboot which fuelled his sky-rocket to fame. His seemingly overnight success with the Batman franchise came as a shock to some considering that Nolan had only helmed lower budget, psychological thrillers. Until Insomnia, he hadn’t really worked with any big-name actors and it’s fair to say that his ability to create grounded, intriguing, brooding pictures wasn’t enough for Warner Brothers to let Nolan decide the fate of Batman, which is backed up by their original jitters when he first approached them about Insomnia. Regardless, Insomnia was the supreme stepping-stone needed to launch Nolan into his massive celebrity.


Having initially gone to Warner Brothers before Memento to make Insomnia, Nolan was shot down. However, after the success of Memento, they finally decided to give him a chance with Insomnia, which turned out to be Nolan’s first studio picture. Needing to showcase his control of high-profile actors and ability to handle bigger budgets, as well as larger production values, Insomnia allowed Nolan to unleash all these facets in a single effort. Insomnia really solidified Nolan as a filmmaker and ultimately allowed him to take the reigns of the highly sought after Batman reboot. If he hadn’t grabbed hold of the saga, who knows, we probably wouldn’t have other, big-budget Nolan films like Inception or his forthcoming picture, Interstellar. So, in a way, Insomnia played the biggest role in the emergence of Christopher Nolan. Yet, this begs the question, we will ever see Nolan return to his semi-noir, psychological roots?

Whether or not Insomnia is Nolan’s most underrated and under-seen piece is yet to be concluded as his first full-length, Following, is still to earn its full value.  Nevertheless, there is no arguing that Insomnia does contain Al Pacino’s most underrated performance. Insomnia also features the diverse Robin Williams and the sparsely used Hilary Swank.


Williams easily gives the best, most inspired performance of the entire ensemble. Yet, for some odd reason, people still doubt his abilities and refuse to take him seriously, even after Good Will Hunting. Although I can assure you his portrayal of a reluctant murderer in Insomnia is much more outstanding. Swank’s bright eyes and eagerness carry her well throughout Insomnia. She elegantly captures the uninhibited, almost innocent personality needed to convey her characters drive. As for Pacino, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a finer performance. The strength of his method and relentless investment pays huge dividends in Insomnia. Pacino impeccably absorbs the never-ending sunlight and turns that energy into the confusion, disorientation, and guilt needed to power his performance.

With astounding direction, unfathomable performances, and haunting imagery. Insomnia is the farthest thing from sedating.

Insomnia: 9 out of 10.


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