By Brian Jacks
Fresh off Momento, director Chris Nolan didn’t take long to delve into his next project, Insomnia. A moderate success at the box office, the crime thriller grossed over 66 million dollars, vastly trumping the 1997 Norwegian film upon which it was based. Featuring memorable performances, an original storyline, and attractive locations, the film caught on with both audiences and critics alike, some of the latter proclaiming it among the year’s best.
At its basic, Insomnia is the very definition of a major studio picture. Produced by Hollywood heavyweights George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, the film counts among its cast Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, and Maura Tierney. Contrary to its namesake, the movie’s premise doesn’t revolve around sleep deprivation, although that’s certainly one of the elements. Insomnia is a crime thriller, cop vs. bad guy flick, and would be standard fare if not for the myriad of twists that send the movie from “been there” to “what’ll happen next?” When one thinks all is figured out, another unexpected turn sends the audience reeling in a new direction. As in Nolan’s Momento, one is never quite sure where the film is heading.
Insomnia stars Pacino as LAPD forensic detective Will Dormer, a master in his field. Amid a possible career-ending internal affairs investigation back at home, Dormer and his partner are sent to remote Nightmute, Alaska to assist in the investigation of the beating death of a teenage girl. With the help of an eager local police detective (Swank), the team must sift through the collected evidence to piece together what exactly occurred, and track down the murderer. All standard stuff, except Dormer’s partner is shot and killed under questionable circumstances, and the discovery of a witness to that act will set in motion an entirely bizarre chain of events that will turn Dormer’s world upside down and spinning.
Hollywood crime thrillers are inherently unrealistic by their very nature (the life of a detective is far more monotonous), so the best one can hope for isn’t a complete assurance of realism, but rather something that’s entertaining, doesn’t insult its audience, and carries its ideas through to a successful, and hopefully memorable, conclusion. Insomnia succeeds on all counts by interjecting a constantly-updating plot throughout the storyline and by delivering extremely notable performances. After involving himself in more than a few recent box office failures, Pacino is back on his game. His portrayal of Dormer as a grizzled vet tortured over complex ethnical and moral issues recalls such emotional performances as those given in Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon. Robin Williams, for his part, plays his soft-spoken character perfectly to an almost chilling extent, with psychotic undertones the likes of which contrast frighteningly to his real life nice-guy persona. The innate dissimilarities between Pacino and Williams create a chemistry that makes for fantastic viewing, and helps give the film that extra edge that sends it from good cinema to great cinema.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Insomnia features a flawless transfer with no observable artificial enhancements or print blemishes, which isn’t too surprising considering this was a major studio effort. Filmed in British Columbia, Insomnia features incredible landscapes of snow-drenched plains and soaring mountain ranges, a setting that contrasts sharply when one thinks of a psychological crime thriller. Camera angles are often non-traditional, such as one remarkable chase scene featuring Pacino and Williams racing across a moving log boom, a la Frogger.
Delivered with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, the audio transfer is as good as the film. While not featuring a powerful soundtrack in terms of explosions or car chases, the dialogue is pushed clearly through the center channel with directional sounds and musical accompaniments making good use of the rears. David Julyan’s musical score helps set the mood with subtle tones throughout and more booming audio when needed, such as the aforementioned log chase scene.
Insomnia comes to DVD with a litany of supplements. Headlining the extras package is a feature-length commentary by director Christopher Nolan. Interestingly, the commentary is delivered chronologically, in order of the film’s shooting sequence (i.e. all the scenes shot on day one are shown, then followed by day two, and so on). Because of this, some of the movie’s closing acts are found in the first few minutes of the commentary. It’s a new and intriguing, if somewhat disjointed, way of viewing a film. Nolan, as the sole commenter on the track, gives a mostly technical description of the filming, although he does intersperse it with personal stories and recollections throughout. Four other scene-specific commentaries are also included, featuring actress Hilary Swank, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Wally Pfister, and screenwriter Hillary Seitz. Each provide their insight into the filmmaking process from almost every, allowing us an overview of almost every facet. Particularly interesting is Seitz’ track, as we hear how a relatively inexperienced writer was tapped to create a major motion picture from sourced material.
Next up are four featurettes. “Day For Night” is a standard behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, with interviews with all of the principals. This is the only point in the extras package that Robin Williams is heard from, which is rather unfortunate as it would have been nice to gain further insight as to how he approached his dark character. Moving on, in “180°,” we’re treated to an unscripted conversation between Nolan and Pacino. For the most part, it’s technical on an “Inside the Actor’s Studio” level. Much is discussed as to acting style, and whether or not actors should rehearse, or what type of freedom they desire, etc. Pacino references events from his past, including Dog Day Afternoon, Godfather, and Scarface, and the back and forth nature of the segment as they question each other makes for an interesting listening experience.
“In the Fog,” the disc’s third featurette, is actually divided into two individual segments, one consisting of cinematography and the other with production design, each with the particular individuals in charge of said department. In an interesting move, each includes the same footage, both off camera and on, thus the only difference is how each individual relates their experiences to what’s being flashed on the screen. While the production designer and the cinematographer do add astute comments in regard to their respective positions, occasionally both will comment on the exact same thing, making it repetitive. The last featurette is “Eyes Wide Open,” a clinical look at the world of insomniacs, which features interviews with both physicians and genuine insomniacs.
Rounding out the extras are a deleted scene featuring Pacino and Tierney, a photograph gallery, cast and crew film highlights, and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
The Movie: A. In an age of bland, uninspired films, Insomnia shines.
The Look: A. A flawless transfer and beautiful locations make this film wonderful to look at.
The Sound: A. Although it’s mostly dialogue-driven, the audio is clear and the surrounds fill the room when needed.
The Extras: B+. A wide array of supplements are included, although it would have been nice to have heard more from Pacino and especially Williams.
Overall: A. Insomnia is a crime thriller well worth watching.