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Insomnia (2002)

July 30th, 2007 · 4 Comments

John Huston once said: “”There is a willful lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time. They can’t make them as good as they are in our memories, but they go on doing them and each time it’s a disaster. Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures … and make them good?” This Distracted Globe recycles itself and examines the best and worst remakes.

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By Joe Valdez

Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) arrive by seaplane in “Nightmute, Alaska.” The LAPD has sent them to aid the investigation of a murdered 17-year-old girl. In reality, the LAPD is trying to cool an Internal Affairs investigation hinged on the men. Hap notifies Dormer that he’s decided to cut a deal. Dormer fears that will involve his partner informing against him, and the killers he’s persecuted will go free.

Dormer takes an eager young detective named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) under his wing. The sun doesn’t set in Nightmute this time of year, and he finds he can’t sleep. The detective uses the victim’s backpack to lure her killer out, but their suspect escapes through a mine tunnel. Dormer gets lost in the mist chasing him, and shoots Hap, who dies believing Dormer meant to kill him.

The detective tampers with evidence to make it appear their suspect shot Hap. He closes in on paperback writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) who had a relationship with the girl, but Finch reveals to Dormer that he saw him shoot his partner. The writer feels a special kinship with the cop, and offers to help him, if Dormer does the same in return. Meanwhile, Ellie becomes suspicious of her mentor.

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In 2000, a filmmaker no one had heard of named Christopher Nolan went after a writing assignment for Warner Brothers, an adaptation of the 1997 Norwegian film Insomnia. The psychological thriller involved a cop from Sweden (Stellan Skarsgård) who arrives in a town where the sun doesn’t set, to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. He shoots his partner by mistake, and conspires with the girl’s killer to cover up both crimes.

Nolan discovered the studio had already hired Hillary Seitz to adapt the film. He turned his attention to directing a low budget film noir he had written with his brother called Memento. Director Jonathan Demme circled Insomnia, with Harrison Ford in talks to play Dormer. Demme ultimately passed. Producer Steven Soderbergh heard that Nolan was still interested and encouraged the studio to take a look at Memento.

Nolan saw Insomnia in the tradition of the great American cop movies the studios made fifty years ago, but one that would subvert audience expectations. Al Pacino became his ideal choice to play Dormer. Nolan revered the original film, though the remake lightened some of its darker elements. The dog Dormer shoots is already dead in the new version, for example, and his relationship with a hotel clerk (Maura Tierney) remains platonic.

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Insomnia isn’t a perfect police procedural, but it’s as perfect a remake as could have been done. From the opening credits, it evokes a beguiling, bleary eyed mood that puts us not only in an Alaskan town, but inside a murder investigation, while operating under increasingly less coherence. The lighting, editing, music and optical effects are orchestrated exceptionally well to build that atmosphere.

The screenplay is more sophisticated than the original, exploring the relationships between the characters, and unfolding the murder investigation in a much sharper and more absorbing way. The remake utilizes location better as well; I thought a foot chase between Dormer and Finch across a channel of timber was particularly novel.

In a change of pace, Al Pacino dials himself down until he’s practically a zombie by the end of the picture. Robin Williams is miscast; I kept waiting for him to do Robin Williams. Everyone else – notably Hilary Swank – is perfect. An hour and fifteen minutes in, the movie starts to weigh a bit heavy and drag, but that was probably unavoidable given the story. Overall, this is one of the better crafted cop movies of the ’00s.

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“The film doesn’t break much new ground … but it is interesting and very well made. One of the best dramatic thrillers in recent memory,” says Mike at The Film Judge.

Rose “Bams” Cooper at 3BlackChicks Review writes, “Separated into its individual bits, the performances in Insomnia will definitely keep you awake; but a closer inspection of the thin threads on which some of the story hangs may make you wish you had nodded off for a wee bit.”

“Those who feel the need to compare versions will find the 1997 original far superior … But on its own merits, this version of Insomnia is still better than the average Hollywood thriller,” says Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide.

Tags: Crooked officer · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Murder mystery · Small town

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Aug 2, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I agree with most of your thoughts here. I go back and forth between whether I prefer this to the original but I absolutely think it’s one of the best remakes of the past ten years.
    Pacino is astonishing to me in this, who else can play exhaustion so well? Swank is a real modern favorite and I think she is so appealing, strong and warm in this role…I agree also on Williams who used to be so effective but something happened after “Good Will Hunting” and he has been more irritating than anything else since…great post, thanks for alerting me to your fine site.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 2, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    Thanks for your terrific comments and for visiting, Jeremy.

    I’m continually impressed by what a strong actress Hilary Swank is.She seems at her best playing somewhat of a hick, but a woman who thinks, and is trying to overcome her environment. Maybe I’m just thinking of Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby and this one.

  • 3 Pat Evans // Aug 3, 2007 at 4:41 am

    Even the definitely superior Norwegian version is flawed, but I do so agree that Robin Williams puts this kiss of death on this remake.

  • 4 Jeremy // Aug 3, 2007 at 9:26 am

    Thanks Joe,
    The thing that gets me so much about Hilary is her dignity. It is what separates her from most modern American film actresses, it is that dignity and goodness that in my mind classifies “Million Dollar Baby” as one of the great modern performances. I think she is really something special…thanks again for the nice comments and great post.

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