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May 22nd, 2002 BECKY OHLSEN | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

MOVING BACKWARDS

Director Christopher Nolan's Insomnia lacks the originality of his earlier film, Memento.

     
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Memento director Christopher Nolan might be wishing he could give audiences a touch of amnesia when they go see Insomnia. If you forgot who directed it, you'd probably find it a pretty good remake of Norwegian writer-director Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 film. But Memento's phenomenal success--or rather, the fact that it was a bold experiment in nonlinear filmmaking and people loved it anyway--raised the bar considerably. Sure, nobody's camping out by the box office waiting for Insomnia to open, but film fans have eagerly anticipated Nolan's follow-up. On top of that, it stars two (arguably three) of the biggest names in Hollywood--Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. There's almost no way the film could have lived up to expectations.

Which isn't to say it's a bad movie. The story centers on Los Angeles police detective Will Dormer (Pacino), who, along with his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), is sent to a miserable Alaskan town in the middle of nowhere to help the local cops solve the brutal murder of a teenage girl. What most of the locals don't know is that Dormer and Eckhart are embroiled in a messy Internal Affairs investigation. Eckhart's about to cut a deal with IA, putting Dormer's career and reputation on the line. Naturally, Dormer's not thrilled. If he goes down in the investigation, every criminal he's put away will be back out on the streets. Plus, he can't sleep: In the Alaskan summer, the sun never sets. End result: Dormer's cranky, and his nerves are shot. When he makes a fatal mistake while tracking the girl's suspected killer, he's rational enough to see that what he's done would ruin him--and rattled enough to risk covering it up.

Insomnia is certainly one of the better remakes of a foreign film in recent memory, although it loses a bit of the ambiguity and the crueler edges of the original. In the Norwegian version, Stellan Skarsgård plays the detective with a riskier combination of desperation and repugnance--you aren't supposed to like him much. He's an alienated bastard: He pointedly speaks only Swedish in Norway; he rudely rebuffs all attempts at friendliness. He hates kittens, he kills a dog, he gropes innocent maidens. Pacino, on the other hand, is all charm. His performance as the exhausted detective carries the film; for once, he restrains himself enough to let you forget that this is Al Pacino, Actor.

Williams, believe it or not, is too restrained. He plays the rational killer so well that you're almost willing to buy his justification for the savage killing. He's subtly creepy, rather than evil--but not quite creepy enough to make your skin crawl as it should.

Hilary Swank plays a smart, perky young cop forced to follow her suspicions about the famous L.A. detective she idolizes. Her questions about what Dormer has done--whether breaking the rules, regardless of the reason, makes him a bad cop--echo the central theme of the movie.

Still, despite an absorbing story and Pacino's stunning performance, the film is far too straightforward to satisfy fans hoping for more of Memento's jigsaw plotline and untidy ending. There are some cool moments of hallucination and uncertainty brought on by Dormer's acute sleep deprivation, but Insomnia's still a traditional narrative without much experimentation. Could it be that Nolan's career is moving in reverse, starting with his crowning achievement and working backward toward ever-less-original filmmaking...?


Insomnia
Rated R
Opens Friday, May 24.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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