Lack of sleep can create a dreamy, haze-filled existence of being half-awake, as if the mind is caught in a twilight fog. Whilst this is an interesting concept to explore, it does not make a driving thriller. Unfortunately, it is the central concept around which Insomnia is built, and although that means some clever cinematography and good performances, it sucks the tension.
The plot is solid genre fare, though moves forward without surprises. After a young girl is murdered in a small Alaskan town that spends the summer in perpetual daylight, the police chief asks his old L.A. posting for help. Two detectives under investigation by Internal Affairs are sent to get them out of the way for a few days. One is considering cutting a deal, the other is supposedly clean but has a skeleton lurking that worries him.
Of all of Christopher Nolan’s films, this is the only one he does not have a writing credit for. Though he did complete the final draft, he did not contribute enough to be credited, and it shows. Nolan went from low budget independent film to blockbuster very quickly, but Insomnia was the stepping stone between. In effect, it was a proof-of-concept that he could handle a big star and a big budget and deliver a big film, all of which he did in this remake. Insomnia is an interesting look at sleep deprivation, guilt, crime, and detective work, but it is not unique. With a much smaller budget, it could be a made-for-TV movie or an episode of a whodunit series, though a few changes to the script might be needed.
Al Pacino plays the lead detective with drooping eyelids who cannot sleep in the endless Alaskan daytime, and whose choices inevitably make things worse. Hilary Swank is the gifted local rookie who idolises him, at least when they first meet. Both give good performances, but both have been better elsewhere. Robin Williams plays very much against type as a creepy author with an interest in teenage girls. He sees police work as formulaic, much like the crime novels he writes, yet it never is, though none of the police seem to realise that other than Pacino’s world-weary detective. The cliché of the big city cop seeing things the yokel locals do not is in full swing, as it the cop and killer engaging in lengthy dialogue. The best part of the film, for me, is Pacino’s dismissal of the killer, declaring no interest in motivation, as catching killers is his job, and comparing the mystery of the murderer to a plumber’s view of a blocked toilet. It is here that a spark of brilliance lies, but it is a distraction, not the main event.
There are some clever uses of light and misdirection of setting, but the lack of tension is the real killer in this murder story. It is neither fully successful as a cat-and-mouse detective tale, nor as a character study of a man spiralling into guilt. Insomnia served the purpose of allowing Nolan to make the films he wanted to make. It is not a bad film, but compared to the rest of his oeuvre it is left wanting. It is, simply, adequate.