I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia. It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid, and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequate about it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.
Actually, it was only Al’s fifth cop (out of eight, by my count), but there’s a lot of frustration and stress packed into those previous four (most of it in Sea of Love, come to think of it). Which means that, even though he hasn’t actually played a weary, insomniac cop before, or one who shot his partner on purpose (and if it wasn’t on purpose, why did he so thoughtfully use his back-up weapon…?), there’s something a little too familiar about the whole arrangement. Harrison Ford was apparently considered – about the time he mulled a lot of less likely parts before inevitably opting to protect the brand – which might have been interesting… no, let’s face it, he’d given up caring by then.
Nolan wrote the final draft of Hillary Seitz’s screenplay, based on the 1997 Norwegian Stellan Skarsård starrer. A Clooney/Soderbergh production – as about as necessary as Soderbergh’s Solaris remake the same year – it was one the director was pursued for; it’s easy to see why he agreed, aside from representing a reasonably sized Hollywood calling card. The themes of perception/deception, delusion/illusion, subjective reality and the blurred line between antagonist/protagonist are all present and correct.
Nolan even furnishes his own puzzler for audiences, something still debated two decades on and about the only element of the picture that succeeds in stirring a strong response (albeit a characteristically cerebral, rather than emotional one). My sense – from what’s onscreen – had always been that Pacino’s Will Dormer, in pursuit of a suspect (who turns out to be Robin Williams’ author Walter Finch), intentionally shoots his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) on a fog-shrouded beach.
The precise circumstances aren’t explicit – we’re given a point of view that Dormer’s sight of the target is unclear – but I could see no other good reason why (a) he didn’t issue a warning and (b) as noted above, he opted to use his backup gun rather than the one he was carrying. Will had earlier taken exception to Hap informing him he would take a plea with Internal Affairs – in particular, relating to a case where Will planted evidence to gain a prosecution – and this appeared to confirm he’d do anything necessary in pursuit of his version of justice (his ultimate utilitarian take being that he does more good than harm, so taking Hap out is permitted to that end).
Others have interpreted the scene differently, with the Wiki synopsis even stating – I know, Wiki, right, bastion of accuracy and veracity – that Will shoots Hap accidentally. Some believe him to be out of bullets, while others assert we can hear clicking, indicating his main weapon has jammed, but there’s clearly no consensus (the last post in this thread seems as close as any I’ve seen to a thorough analysis, and besides the point about Hap clearly believing Will did it purposefully, there’s the thematic point of Walter arguing both he and Will committed their action “accidentally”; what Walter says is clearly positioned as untrue).
It’s untrue for Walter and it’s untrue for Will, and I don’t think Nolan is attempting to suggest only Walter is victim to self-deception (if nothing else, Walter proves remarkably perceptive of Will’s psychology throughout). Indeed, when it comes to Will’s confession (to Maura Tierney’s Rachel) regarding IA (“So the end justifies the means. Right?”) and then to Elli (“… he was… he was afraid of me. And the thought I meant to do it. So… maybe I did. I just don’t know anymore”), I read that as a mind covering its tracks in exactly the same way Walter’s has done, both of them having very purposefully covered things up and laid false trails in order to bury their accidents.
Maybe someone else could have made all this seem essential, but Nolan makes it merely serviceable. There’s just enough of everything to keep Insomnia ticking over and watchable. Just enough disorientation in the visuals and editing (of Will’s perception, of the lack of day and night), and narrative trickery (Walter isn’t seen until past the halfway mark). But for all the atypical culpability of the lead character, the movie is elsewhere awash with familiar tropes, particularly so Hilary Swank’s Ellie Burr, trotting out the Southern ingenue type that would get her a second Oscar for the following year’s Million Dollar Baby; Ellie’s the Will Dormer avid fan who has a rude awakening when her diligent detective work uncovers the truth about her idol.
And if Walter seems like a departure for Williams, as a psycho, it’s more evident the same mannerisms that made him a frequently uncomfortable dramatic lead – a certain shifty nervousness and ill-at-ease, pained quality showing through whenever the motormouth subsided – are being called upon, so it isn’t actually much of a revelation. More interesting is seeing him as a character who is unintimidated in the face of Pacino’s fireworks.
We see enough of Will’s detective technique to make it clear he’s a more than capable cop, but also more than enough to underline – if killing his partner weren’t enough – that he isn’t a very nice one. Whether it’s haranguing the – also not very nice – boyfriend of the victim (“You’re just a little prick in a leather jacket!” exclaims the latter, quite accurately) or freaking out her slutty pal – also not very nice – in a high speed near collision, he succeeds in displaying behaviour that confirms his less than heroic acumen. Most revealing is his dislike of being dictated to by the killer or hoodwinked by the same, as borne out during an interrogation scene; rather than a shootout, the more interesting ending might have been Will’s turning himself in out of pride, refusing to allow Finch to maintain the upper hand in the only way he knows can succeed.
In terms of the Nolan-verse, though, Insomnia simply doesn’t offer a sufficiently colourful spin. What’s he asking here? What’s he imparting? Everything is a grey area, and it’s easy to be led. Even the noble and true Ellie is willing to bury the truth, convincing herself of an official version until Will, divested of any need to pretend any longer, dissuades her. There are no good guys, so don’t assume there are. Anyone, given the attenuating circumstances, will manipulate, deceive and self-justify.
So too Nolan, carving himself out a niche in the version of the world Hollywood wants portrayed, where it’s easier to condone the unthinkable because the relatable protagonists – versions of “us” – are presented as flawed and culpable. This was the director’s post 9/11 movie, and it focuses on murder as a means to cover up evidence of wrongdoing and further consequent actions in support of that, shifting the blame to innocent parties; the only part that doesn’t fit the analogy is the perpetrator coming clean, and willing the truth to come out.