Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:12 pm 
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I stayed awake for this one

It's fun to watch Al Pacino and Robin Williams working together in this noirish police procedural with a twist, especially fun to see Robin Williams, as a sicko loner, still holding the screen just as well without his usual manic good cheer. Williams' performance is eerie because it's low-keyed and free of mannerisms. If you're a big Pacino fan, which I guess I am, you won't mind seeing so very, very much of those big soulful eyes in that droopy sallow face, and hearing the soft, damaged-sounding Pacino voice droning on in his performance as Will Dormer, an L.A. robbery/homicide detective working in exile in Alaska while Internal Affairs investigates him back home and his partner threatens to cut a deal with I.A. to save his own skin. Even muttering on the edge of sleep, Pacino always gives his lines an interesting, intelligent reading. This is a bigger, darker, more complicated, no doubt much more expensive version of the original Norwegian 'Insomnia' of five years ago which starred Stellan Skarsgård. It must cost a lot to hire two Oscar winners like Williams and Pacino in the same movie. There's an excellent supporting cast including another Oscar winner, Hillary Swank, who has a whole lot less to do playing a diligent young rookie detective than she did in her extraordinary performance as Brandon Teena in 'Boys Don't Cry,' and who sinks to the role pretty well, but offers her admirers little to chew on. Nicky Katt adds some alertness as a young cop, and Paul Dooley adds some mellowness as an old one. Christopher Nolan has done an interesting job in this adaptation and hasn't 'sold out' by having a big budget. He may be getting better; he's certainly no worse. 'Memento' seemed thrillingly provocative at the time, and Guy Pierce's lean edginess was perfect, but on re-viewing that movie's gimmick wears thin. The hero who can't make new memories is a freak, and we can't identify with him.

Nolan's moody, dark ambiance in 'Insomnia' continually draws you in, but causes some confusion. One of the story's basic points is that we're in a place where the sun shines 22 hours a day and that makes the troubled detective's insomnia total. The imagery in the original Norwegian 'Insomnia' was, logically, mercilessly bright. This version is only bright when the dialogue insists on it. The scene where Will piles things up to block his hotel window doesn't make sense and the hotel keeper comes in and flips on the light to prove it. 'What's wrong?' she asks. 'This room's too light,' Will says. 'No, it's dark,' she answers, and she's right. Did the cinematographer pay attention to the original story? Every indoor shot is gloomy and mysterious. There are never shadows on Robin Williams' face as you'd think there would be with constant sunlight. There are, however, sudden blasts of violent, jarring sights and sounds, and Christopher Nolan hasn't entirely sworn off his sudden scary flash cuts. This is partly a psychological thriller, but the new version is more of an action movie. Nolan's blasts are louder (and so is the music of David Julyan, who worked with Nolan on 'Memento' and 'Following.'). I'm not sure the filmmakers got clear on what their style and mood were going to be. The Norwegian version was full of action too, but felt smaller, as it was. It wasn't as involving as this version, but it was more consistent.

Pacino isn't manic the way Skarsgård was; he's terribly world-weary and always seems just about to doze off - except that he can't. Robin Williams has been given an interesting, and far expanded, role as the hack mystery writer and creepy recluse, who tries to collaborate, in this version, with the morally compromised cop to escape detection for his own crime. This is a very 'Forties, noirish idea and I'd like to have seen more of it and less of the police procedural shenanigans and less bother about Internal Affairs. The writers on this new 'Insomnia' don't grasp that when you add new things, some of the old stuff becomes unnecessary. In adding so much in, Nolan has successfully appealed to a broad audience and kept the story very attention-getting, but he has also made it feel more conventional. Jonathan Jackson, as the girl victim's bad boy beau Randy Stetson, is far too pretty and soigné, a fugitive from Beverly Hills, not Nightmute, Alaska. Even Hillary Swank, a striking woman, was less pretty as a boy than Jonathan.

June 15, 2002

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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