Home My Library Authors News and Reviews Forums Links
  ? Help
Welcome to ElectricStory.com® Search by: 
Other categories:

Exclusive Movie Reviews
by Lucius Shepard

"Crimea River"
by Howard Waldrop

"Things I've Found"
by Mark Rose

by Bob Kruger

"From Here You
Can See the

by Richard Wadholm

"They're Made
Out of Meat"

by Terry Bisson

"A Dry, Quiet War"
by Tony Daniel

"The Night of White Bhairab"
by Lucius Shepard

All Movie Reviews

All Movie Reviews

Sleepless in Someplace in Alaska
by Lucius Shepard
June 29, 2002

If you’re a habitual reader of reviews, you’re likely going to read several claiming that Insomnia is that rarest of cinematic creatures, a remake better than the original. Whether or not you agree with this may depend upon your definition of the word “better.” For my part, right up until the last fifteen minutes, I was convinced that director Christopher Nolan had managed to pull off a feat I previously thought impossible, i.e., doing a remake of a quality foreign film that, although not as accomplished as the original, was at least a credible rendering of the materials. But during that final fifteen minutes he succeeds in turning an eccentric, compelling piece of noir into mere melodrama. Given that Nolan’s previous films (Following and Memento) were extremely inventive in structure and design, it seems quite possible that the stock ending of his new movie was forced upon him by producers who did not believe that the audience would be capable of handling ambiguity. Which seems a bit odd, because Insomnia is a movie about ambiguity, and for the preceding hour and forty-three minutes, the audience has been drenched in it.

Los Angeles detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a legendary crime solver, a luminary in the police firmament, and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are sent to the Alaskan wilderness town of Nightmute to investigate the brutal beating death of a young woman whose body was washed and cleaned by the murderer in order to destroy every last scintilla of physical evidence. The assignment serves also to get the pair out of LA, where both are being harassed by an Internal Affairs investigation of their past cases. Indeed, Hap has already decided to make a deal with IA, one that will imperil Dormer’s career, and this creates serious tension between the two men.

It’s summer in Alaska, the sun is almost always above the horizon, and Dormer finds himself unable to sleep, his judgment and his general mental state decaying. Nevertheless, he sets a trap to lure the murderer back to the fishing cabin where the victim’s body was found. The plan succeeds, but the murderer becomes aware that the police are watching him and flees into the fog. During the ensuing pursuit over rocky ground, Dormer becomes disoriented and inadvertently shoots and kills Hap. Or is the shooting inadvertent? Hap, dying, accuses him of murder and Dormer himself is confused as to what has happened. Local detective Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), a novice on the job who hero-worships Dormer to the point that one half-expects her to jump and lick his face, or to begin humping his leg, is assigned to investigate Hap’s death. At the same time the murderer, a mystery novelist named Walter Finch (Robin Williams), begins calling Dormer on the phone, commiserating with him about his insomnia, telling him that he witnessed Hap’s death and is willing to work with Dormer to cover up both their crimes. As Dormer’s sleeplessness continues, leaving him prone to flashbacks of memory and hallucinatory breaks, his poor judgments escalate, and he joins, albeit reluctantly, in common purpose with Finch.

The atmospheric Norwegian thriller that serves as Nolan’s model, also entitled Insomnia, is scene-by-scene almost the same movie for most of its duration. However, there are a number of telling differences between the two. In the Norwegian film the lead detective (Stellan Skarsgard) is a man spiritually crippled by the exigencies of his work and existentially at sea. He has no clear-cut career-oriented motivation for murder as does Will Dormer, and if he did intentionally kill his partner, it was done out of some perverse and momentary impulse. In the Norwegian version, the female detective assigned to the shooting has some admiration for the lead detective, but is in her own right a competent and dedicated public servant. No hint of hero worship here. These distinctions point up the difficulty Hollywood has with telling an honest story. In the view of your average and even not-so-average Hollywood producer, nothing ordinary or small can be considered interesting, and subtle human motivations are deemed too subtle for mass consumption. Their detective has to be a superstar detective, and his motivation for murder has to be—for purposes of generating audience sympathy—the hounding of a good, brave, accomplished man by the weasels of Internal Affairs. Another such difference is brought forth when Dormer begins to defend himself against possible prosecution for murder. He has found a gun—dropped by the murderer—out on the rocky lakeshore where his partner met his fate. He takes the gun, shoots a bullet into a dead dog, and replaces the bullet that was removed from his partner’s body with this one. The lead detective in the Norwegian version kills the dog, then removes the bullet, and is far more actively involved in setting up an evidentiary circumstance that will allow him to go unpunished. He is a willing participant along with Finch in the cover-up, every bit as responsible for it, and is no less a manipulator. It is a law of the Hollywood process that while one’s protagonist may be troubled, he cannot be a killer of dogs or a man whose ethical compass is other than momentarily out of whack. The American audience, it is felt, simply will not accept a protagonist who, like most of us, is wandering in a moral fog.

Another distinction between the two films is the setting. The Norwegian film utilizes the bleak Arctic tundra, suitable to the bleak materials of the story, whereas the American version offers the lushness of the Alaskan wilderness, waterfalls sluicing down into green gorges, dramatic mountains, gorgeous rocky bays. Once again a Hollywood law—nothing interesting can occur in a place that is not visually spectacular. The majestic setting takes an edge off the grimness of the story, serving to muddy the fact that the citizens of the town, Nightmute, are many of them people who according to the script have hidden themselves away and are running from their pasts. As is Dormer. Though this idea is given lip service in dialog in the American version, it does not resonate with the postcard ambiance and brooding yet glorioso score that accompanies tracking shots of glaciers and foaming rivers, et al. Nor does it synch with the reality of such summer places, towns who derive ninety-eight percent of their income during the summer and whose citizenry, their pockets bulging with tourist loot, spend the winters happily traveling in sunny climes. (Where, by the way, are the tourists in this town? At the height of the tourist season, the place as filmed is almost empty, yet supports what appears to be a luxurious four-star lodge along with other nifty-looking tourist facilities.)

Once a more-than-competent actor, Pacino has devolved over the last fifteen years into a yeller and a scenery-chewer, a caricature of his former self. Praise should be given to Nolan for reigning him in, but a restrained performance is not necessarily a great one, and though Pacino is limited herein to a handful of yells, his customary repertoire of eye-rollings and grunts and dolorous sighs is on full display, and to no good effect. He does not come off at all well by contrast to Stellan Skarsgard’s quietly contained and mostly externalized performance in the same role. Robin Williams as Finch is appropriately creepy, but then I find him creepy in every part he has ever attempted—a peculiarly androgynous figure with a namby-pamby voice that at times sounds as if he were speaking through a pair of cotton briefs stretched across his face. The most effective performances in the film are those given by Swank and by Maura Tierney (Scotland, PA) as a hotelkeeper, both in rather thankless and truncated roles. Swank’s metamorphosis from a cute puppy with a bow around her neck to a thoroughly engaged professional troubled by the growing suspicion that her hero has feet of clay is especially notable.

All this said, for most of its length Insomnia is well worth watching due to the cleverness and talent of its director. Nolan manages to overcome the handicaps with which he has been burdened—Pacino, a dumbed-down script by Hillary Seitz, and doubtless the incessant looking-over-his-shoulder presence of his producers—and keeps us involved by means of outstanding camera work and the brilliantly achieved intercutting of Pacino’s hallucinations and other such flashy maneuvers. Hopefully, as he gains more power—which is, after all, the only meaningful coin in Hollywood—he’ll be able to get rid of the production snoops and make movies in his maturity that fulfill the promise of his youth. For an hour and forty-three minutes, he almost pulls it off. Despite my caveats, there is a lot to like here.

Then comes the ending.

The resolution of the Norwegian film is deft and ambiguous and speaks to the randomness of fate and the awful fragility of the human condition. It is as gray as the fog in which the event that stands central to its plot takes place, and thus is in keeping with the ofttimes murkily focused and unsettling resolutions of crises in our own lives. But realism of this sort is not deemed suitable for mass consumption by the lawgivers of the Hollywood film. Hollywood prefers to clobber us with theme and meaning, and so Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia concludes with a steeped-in-Family-Values, all-loose-ends-secured ending in which every evil is punished, redemption is gained by those who require it, truth and justice are served, and a moral lesson is taught, and whaddya know, this is achieved by means of a full-on blood-spattering shoot-out.


Watching it, I thought of Death of a Salesman culminating with Willy Loman dying in a kung-fu battle royale, of The Grapes of Wrath climaxing with an army of machete-wielding Okies charging the White House, of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal remade with heavy special FX and a script by Stephen King, of Hamlet closing with a food fight.

That’s how clumsy and inappropriate it seemed.

If you’re going to take in a thriller this summer, Insomnia is probably your best bet. But which Insomnia? If you like fifty-million-dollar budgets, terrific production values, and a director whose technique is the cinematic equivalent of early Eddie Van Halen, then go for the theatrical release. But if you’re after an experience that will nourish and disturb you, and leave you thinking and not saying—as I did after my exposure to the American version—“Aw, Christ...no!,” then you’d be well advised to check out the original. My advice is to see them both. For anyone interested in film, these two movies provide a clear lens through which to focus upon the distinctions between world cinema and our own homegrown, amped-up, and often silly attempts to imitate it.