As the A-list, big-budget follow-up to his insta-cult classic Memento, Christopher Nolan's Insomnia was rightly one of the year's most anticipated films, and if Memento was a singular creation for its novel backward structure, Insomnia is unique for perhaps even more unlikely reasons.
Nolan's accomplished return manages to be simultaneously a testament to what a talented filmmaker can still accomplish in Hollywood and an unusual case study in the pandering and calculation that now infects the mainstream American film industry.
But first, the goods. A remake of an excellent 1997 Norwegian film (which, incidentally, did play in Memphis) directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg and starring Stellan Skarsgard, Nolan's version skillfully adapts many of its model's key elements and even improves on it in significant ways. The central mood and visual style of both films are that of sunlit noir. In the original, Skarsgard is a Swedish detective sent to Norway to help with a murder investigation during the summer, months when the sun never sets. A trail of moral questions follows him north, with the insomnia caused by his struggle to adapt to 24-hour daylight adding to his psychological unease. In an early scene, while attempting to apprehend the murderer on a fog-blanketed beach, the detective accidentally shoots and kills his partner then covers it up. Later, he's contacted by the murderer (the original one, that is), who witnessed the shooting. The murderer proposes that the detective frame another suspect for his crime in exchange for not revealing the detective's own complicity in his partner's death.
Nolan's film repeats this basic outline, with Al Pacino as an LAPD detective sent to Alaska partner (Martin Donovan) in tow, internal-affairs investigation hanging over his head, and perpetual sunlight slowly eating away at whatever mental stability he has left. And Nolan makes brilliant use of his locations. The opening landscape shots of a small plane transporting Pacino over the jagged Alaskan tundra are stunning, and the film's restaging of the original's foggy beach stakeout and accidental shooting conveys both the disorienting effects of the mist and the physicality of the rocky landscape. Nolan also adds a chase sequence over (and under) a river full of floating logs which adds action-movie energy while staying true to the film's visual and psychological tone.
As straightforward storytelling, Nolan's film is largely superior to its model (which, of course, emanates from a different sensibility). The acting outside of the Skarsgard/Pacino lead, which is a push is more directly engaging here, with nice supporting turns from Hilary Swank as an admiring local detective and Maura Tierney as the innkeeper at Pacino's hotel. And most surprising of all is the frequently unwatchable Robin Williams as the area crime novelist who emerges as the murderer. I feared that Nolan would turn this character, who is creepy but pointedly mundane in the original, into a Hannibal Lecter/evil-genius type, thus playing into Williams' penchant for grotesque overacting. Nolan does make the character a more active and menacing presence, but he mostly stays true to the original's refreshingly realistic attitude, and Williams obliges with perhaps his most effectively understated performance. "You're about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fuckin' plumber," Pacino's detective says to Williams' killer, and in this movie, it's not just bluster but the truth.
Yet however effective and engaging the film, it is also depressing not for what Nolan (or screenwriter Hillary Seitz) has changed from the original but why. In many ways, Nolan's version is less a straight remake than a different film made from the same intriguing core materials, and that's a good thing. But this American version also makes a series of key changes that all serve the same dubious purpose: to make the morally conflicted protagonist more sympathetic.
At the risk of giving away too many plot points, let's look at those changes: In the original, the detective shoots a stray dog in order to extract a bullet for evidence tampering; in the remake, Pacino finds the dog already dead. In the original, the detective responds to the sexual come-ons of a teenage witness; in the remake, Pacino rebuffs these come-ons. In the original, the detective has a run-in with the innkeeper, which intimidates and frightens her; in the remake, Pacino and Tierney share a tender, somewhat comforting moment. In the original, the detective's partner is shown to be a pretty decent guy; in the remake, Donovan is portrayed as more of a "bad cop" (in trouble for shaking down drug dealers) than Pacino. In the original, the detective is fleeing from trouble back home relating to an improper relationship (i.e., sexual relations) with a suspect; in the remake, Pacino's tortured conscience and internal-affairs troubles spring from his falsifying evidence to ensure the conviction of a vicious child killer. In the original, the detective goes along with the murderer and tries to frame the teenage boyfriend of the murder victim; in the remake, it is Williams' character who plants evidence on the teenager and Pacino who tries to stop him. And, finally, in the original, the detective gets off scot-free, leaving him, and by extension the audience, in a state of moral limbo; in the remake, per Hollywood convention, Pacino's "crooked" cop dies but not before he redeems himself by preventing Swank's doting junior detective from compromising her ideals.
That a film from such a well-respected, hotshot director and containing so many powerhouse actors (three Oscar winners), a film that, in so many ways, embodies the best that Hollywood is capable of, would nonetheless go to such outrageous lengths to ensure that its protagonist is palatable to audiences (and this in a film about moral ambiguity) might be a more troubling example of the marketing-driven dumbing-down of American film than computer-generated effects and product placements in lesser films. Nolan has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock as a result of this accomplished, intelligent thriller and with some justification. But Hitchcock never pandered to his audience, glossed over the darkest impulses in his films, or let his audience off the hook like this.