[box cover]

Insomnia (2002)

Warner Home Video

Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank,
Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Paul Dooley,
and Nicky Katt

Written by Hillary Seitz, with John Formichella
from a screenplay by Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius
for the movie directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg

Directed by Christopher Nolan


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Review by D.K. Holm                    


I. Re-makes

When word came down that Christopher Nolan, the impressive critical favorite who had done the practically one-man-show thriller Following and the chronology-juggling indie hit Memento, was going to direct the American re-make of the respected Norwegian existential police procedural Insomnia, no doubt many a brow furled and a few wags exhaled the dire words, The Vanishing.

I have yet to read a stirring defense of the 1993 American re-make of George Sluizer's grim examination of the mind of a serial killer. The American version starred Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, and Sandra Bullock. Set in the Northwest (kind of like Insomnia, which is transferred to Alaska but shot in Vancouver), the new Vanishing more or less follows the original except for some odd casting choices and the imposition of an action-filled happy ending set in a cabin in the woods that comes across like a wan version of a Jason movie. Sluizer himself has criticized the film in interviews. He should know — he directed both the original and the revision.

But of course the critics were ready to pounce on the new Vanishing. How dare they fiddle with something that is already perfect? Sluizer's 1988 Dutch film was deemed to be of such grim, honest, surprising quality that it was sacrilege to mess with it. And this is Hollywood, after all, the home of the best directors and screenwriters in the country, which is to say the best in the world. Can't they come up with something new? Must needs they ransack foreign cultures to find new "product"? And doesn't the continual failure of these re-makes deter them from this rash course of self-destruction and audience alienation?

Seemingly not. What these complainers seem to forget is that re-makes, of both foreign and American movies, have been a staple of cinema since the silent era. In fact, in the silent era there was little need to actually re-make a film since the lack of a dialogue track disguised the truth that a given film was an import (though certainly the people in the films must have looked funny). The rise of sound necessitated either the parallel re-recording of European films in English tracks, or a later re-make within the walls of the American studios. From 1980 to 1996 alone, Hollywood re-made no less than 30 French films, from Three Men and a Baby to True Lies.

However, the concept of the European re-make does raise some interesting philosophical and aesthetic questions. On the one hand Hollywood really wants to buy that story from its European owners. On the other, they change it so much that often it is a pale reflection of the original. What did they see in it in the first place? This is much like what happens to international directors. Why bring a George Sluizer or a Jocelyn Moorhouse or a Neil Jordan or a Stephen Frears to America, only to confine them to the tasks of realizing a hollow commercial project that any American hack could pull off more easily and cheaply? What exactly did the producers see in these directors in the first place, beyond the cachet of a hot "name"?

But even more interesting is the question of whether a re-make is really a "translation" of the original. Just as Pushkin's unusual rhyme scheme for Eugene Onegin has baffled generations of translators striving to recreate the effect of Pushkin's Russian verse and story, so too does a re-make fail to really capture the flavor or intentions of the original. In American moviemaking, though, that is the point. The Hollywood producer does not want to faithfully re-create the original, because then he would have just another French film. Instead, he wants an American film with a hint of exotic spice. There is no true "translation," no true re-make.

It was not inevitable that the first Insomnia would become an American movie. It grossed only a little over $200,000 in the United States, and it was more of a critical darling than an art-house hit. On the other hand, Christopher Nolan's Insomnia cost $46 million and raked in $67.2 million during its U.S. run. It was also not inevitable that the film would end up being as fine of a DVD release as it is.


II. Plot

Comparing Insomnia to Insomnia is easy to do.

Both films are about a cop sent to a different jurisdiction to help the locals solve a horrible crime. In the case of Nolan's Insomnia, it is Will Dormer (Al Pacino), an LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division detective who is sent up to Nightmute, Alaska, to help in the investigation of the brutal death of a high school girl named Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe). Accompanying him is his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). In Nightmute, the investigators are welcomed by Charles Nyback (Paul Dooley), an old colleague who is now the chief of police in Nightmute. They also are fawned over by a young woman officer named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who studied Dormer's cases at the Academy. They also inspire resentment in the turf-conscious Fred Duggar (Nicky Katt).

Soon it becomes clear that Kay was killed by someone she knew, but who was not in her immediate circle. In addition, it is quickly obvious that Dormer and Eckhart have been shuffled off to Alaska to evade an in-depth Internal Affairs investigation on the order of the recent Ramparts case. Tensions arise between Dormer and Eckhart, and then after a tragedy in the fog chasing down a suspect, Dormer finds himself taunted, blackmailed, and manipulated by the person who committed the Connell murder.

The trick of both films is that the investigator cannot adapt to days of never-ending sun in the northern latitudes, and this condition of insomnia prevents him from thinking clearly. His condition leads him to hallucinate, to question himself, and also to take a detour down a self-destructive path. He doubly becomes an outsider: Not only is he from the lower forty-eight, but he deteriorates visibly within the company of people who are acclimated to the non-stop illumination found near the top of the world. As many others have pointed out, Dormer's last name is synonymous with the French word "to sleep."

The two films are remarkably similar, yet different in significant ways. Dormer still has a fling with a hotelier (Maura Tierney), but it is much more tender. Dormer still has a sexually tense encounter with Kay's man-stealing best friend Tanya (Katharine Isabelle), but instead of putting his hand under the dress of a teenage girl (no doubt unacceptable to the MPAA), Dormer manipulates her into spilling some information. The relationship between Dormer and Walter Finch (a subtle, almost passive Robin Williams) — named John Holt in the Norse version — is much different, more akin to the lead roles in Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire.

Finally, the American version is arguably sadder, in that it has an "unhappy" if redemptive ending. On the other hand, the "new" ending may be based on traditional American Puritanism that requires instant retribution for sins. The conclusion also shifts the movie's center of interest to Ellie, the watchful aspiring cop who learns a hard lesson about the nature of crime-fighting.

The two charges made against the movie by reviewers that are the most prominent are that Insomnia is boring, and that Dormer and Eckhart would not have been sent up to Alaska in the first place. In defense of the movie, it should be said that their presence in Alaska is thoroughly explained in the film itself, even if it goes against real-life procedures. And it is true that Insomnia might embody for many people the cure to the syndrome it's named after, but — for this viewer at least — the film is a careful, meticulous, thorough, and realistic exploration of clashes of cultures, psychologies, and moralities.


III. The DVD

Warner Home Video has done a characteristically Nolanian job with its one-disc Insomnia DVD release.

Both widescreen and pan-and-scan editions have been released separately with identical supplements. The widescreen version offers an anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that looks just beautiful. Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1, both in English and French; the surrounds come into play most successfully during an early chase scene, and later as Dormer becomes more sleep-deprived and office noises begin to irritate him. The audio track also perfectly suits the eerie music by Team Nolan member David Julyan.

The major supplement is an audio commentary by Christopher Nolan, offered, unusually, in production schedule order, not in the film's chronological order. The mere fact of this is probably the most educational thing about this track, as you can see how the filmmakers have to re-order scenes for most efficient shooting. One of the fun things about seeing the movie laid out the way it was shot is that you can track Pacino's attempt at a southern or Texan accent. As the shooting progresses he must have thought that was a bad idea, and casually dropped it, as this arrangement of scenes makes clear.

There are also selective audio commentaries by Hilary Swank (her track lasts two minutes and 36 seconds), neophyte screenwriter Hillary Seitz (11:22), Team Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister (8:09), Nathan Crowley (4:42), and TN member editor Dody Dorn (14:32). These commentary snippets can be played individually or shuffled all together. As we can see, their chat comprises about 35 minutes of screen-time. No one explains where they came up with the name Nightmute, however.

In one of the best features on the disc, called 180º: Christopher Nolan interviews Al Pacino: An Unscripted Conversation on a Saturday Afternoon, we finally get to hear Pacino talk about this work. At 17 minutes, it's not nearly long enough. Some viewers may wish that it went on for another two hours — that is how insightful and charming Pacino is. Clearly, Pacino would someday make a fantastic acting teacher. And in this snippet of an interview we can see Pacino really listening to Nolan. In fact, the segment begins with Pacino asking Nolan questions, rather than the other way around. His performance in this interview is almost as impressive as his performance in the film.

There is one single additional scene. At just over three minutes, it's actually quite a substantial one — a conversation between Pacino and Tierney, in which, as Nolan says on the optional director commentary track, Dormer finally tells someone the truth about his inner life. It is a very good scene; one can also see why it was removed, although perhaps it could have been restored to the film during the DVD production (given that home audiences are more patient than theater audiences).

There is a suite of "making of" featurettes. The seven-minute "Day for Night: The Making of Insomnia" is a relatively typical spot, with co-producer Steven Soderbergh making a surprise cameo appearance to praise the film in his capacity as executive producer. The six-minute "In the Fog: Wally Pfister" (6:10) and "In the Fog: Nathan Crowley" (5:47) are really two parts of the same documentary. The cinematographer and the production designer watch the same reel of digital video on-location home movies and comment on what they see.

"Eyes Wide Open" is a throwaway seven-minute documentary about chronic insomnia, with two doctors (Dr. Frisco Yan Go, Medical Director of the UCLA Sleep Disorder Center, and Dr. William Dement, Director of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center) and two victims (Phillip Lacey, Laura Robinson) talking about the impact of the syndrome on the lives of its sufferers.

The disc is topped off with some DVD-ROM features for PC users only, the two-minute theatrical trailer, a three-minute animated color-and-black-and-white stills gallery, skimpy cast notes on Pacino, Williams, and Swank, and skimpy crew notes on Nolan, writer Seitz, DP Pfister, designer Crowley and editor Dorn.

— D.K. Holm



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