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Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Written by Hillary Seitz.  Based on the 1997 Norwegian film.
Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. 
Release Year:  2002 
Review Date:  5/9/02 


My friend Aaron scored a couple of passes to check out director Christopher Nolan’s new film “Insomnia” the other most of you know, I felt that “Memento” was the best film released here in America last year, so I was all over this one.  It helped that Nolan himself spoke after the screening, which he claimed was the first showing of the film to audiences.

Talk about upping the ante:  now a former Oscar nominee, Nolan got the help of three former Oscar winners to star in his new film.  A remake of a Norwegian film from five years ago, “Insomnia” tells the story of Will Dormer (Al Pacino), an LA cop that gets assigned to a case in a small town in Alaska.  The murder case deals with a dead 17-year-old girl that may or may not have been a lover of a local writer (Robin Williams), with the help of rookie patrol officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), Dormer tracks the movements of the person he believes killed the teenage girl.

That about sums up the start of the film...but, the film doesn’t really get interesting until we meet Williams’ character.  By telling us right away who the killer is, Nolan removes all suspense from the hunt for the young girl’s murderer; he gets all of our attention by making us wait to learn why Walter Finch (Williams) committed such a crime.  The conversations between cop and killer feel familiar at first...but, the moral dilemma surrounding events in Dormer’s life make for an intriguing third act as the two men get to know each other.

To tell you more will give the plot away.  Let me first say that I had really high hopes for this film, since I loved “Memento” and I was hoping for a film that would feature big-studio actors in an unconventional film...but, that doesn’t happen.  One can safely say—especially after listening to Nolan talk about his choices for this film in the post-viewing Q&A—that Nolan dialed it in on this one.  The film is beautifully shot, featuring a Canada that stands in for parts of Alaska so beautifully that it might as well be called “Ansel Adams 101.”  Seriously, the visuals are the number one reason to see this film.  That, and the aforementioned situation that Pacino’s character falls into.

But, in talking about why he cast Pacino in the first place, Aaron and I both heard a man that has found success in writing/directing his own work and deciding to do a studio picture just to test the waters of what it is like to work within a tighter (albeit, more expensive) framework.  Nolan talked at length about the need to cast a recognizable American actor in the Dormer role, “someone that has done many movies before, even played a similar character before.”  Off the top of my head, I thought of only two people in the whole world that could play this character so convincingly:  Pacino and Robert De Niro.  Luckily, Nolan scored one of them!  Also, the fact that Nolan wanted to try directing a script that he hadn’t written showed that he might take a chance on a film while he has the pull to do so; if Nolan isn’t the most sought-after director in Hollywood right now, then my name is Joshua Chang.

And, Swank’s role as the green rookie cop is a diversion for her as well; after strong turns in her Oscar-winning role in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “The Affair of the Necklace”, it seemed as if Swank was just happy to be working with Nolan and Pacino.  Her part features so many clichés that I thought I was watching a Bruckheimer production; Pacino’s well-traveled cop shows up into what looks like the set of “Northern Exposure” and the first thing out of her mouth is how excited she is to work with a big-city detective.  She naturally talks later in the film about being anxious to do more than just bust college kids for drinking or breaking up the occasional barroom brawl, so that she can start working on cases that are “really exciting” at some point.


The casting of Williams is quite good here; I love it when he dials it down to drama, and he is well-cast.  Nolan summed it up best after our viewing:  “I needed someone that would look out of place talking to someone like Pacino’s character...and, Robin fit this very nicely.”  Nolan also talked about how well Williams played a “forgettable” human being; he is just another guy in the crowd during “Insomnia”, not the raging loudmouth from so many of his other films.  Although he doesn’t have many scenes, Williams plays the part well and leaves a strong impression with you as a mostly-decent bad guy.  Pacino has some good moments here, but just as Nolan required, Pacino has played this cop many, many times before and does nothing earth-shattering with the part.

“Insomnia” is a good film...just not as groundbreaking as “Memento”, or his first feature-length release, “Following” (now on video).  If you have seen either of his first two films, try not to compare them to his newest work.

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09