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Insomnia

December 2, 2012

(This post is being published as a part of Scenes of Crime Blogathon under category, Pyschological  Thrillers. Insomnia to me is Christopher Nolan’s most underrated, under appreciated movies. Even self confessed Nolan fans, do not mention this movie at all. And that is sad, considering that this is one of the best psychological thrillers ever made. No special effects or gimmicks, this is a hard core, old school thriller, that deserves more appreciation).

The only guide to man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.-Winston Churchill

Spoilers  in the  Post: The  motive  of  this  article  is  primarily  to  focus  on  the  pyschology of  the  main  characters  in  Insomnia,  and  the  motivations behind  their  actions, which  could  result  in  certain key  moments  and  scenes  of the  movie   being  revealed.  This  is  for  those  who  have  not  seen  the  movie.
David  Julyan’s music  lingers  on  in the background,  heavy, somber, grim,  foreboding  the  inevitable   sense  of  doom  as  the  opening  credits  of  Insomnia flash  on the  screen,  zooming up  to  a blood  stained  sweater,  a  motif  that  occurs   at  many  points in the  movie.  And  then  a  panoramic,  Sergio  Leone style  view  of  the  Alaskan  wilderness   zooming  on to the screen,   rushing  at  us.   In  fact  if  one  takes   a  look  at  the opening  credits,  it keeps  switching  between  the  strands  of  the  blood  stained  sweater  all knotted  up,  and  then  the  sprawling  Alaskan  landscape.    The  juxtaposition  of  these  2  elements  actually  sets  up  the  2  major  points  of  the  movie,  the  Alaskan  landscape  that  is  the  backdrop  for  the  drama  that  unfolds,  and  the  close up  view  of  the blood  spreading over  the strands  of  the  sweater,  metaphorically  representing the  tangled  nature  of  the  entire  plot.

Insomnia was  Christopher  Nolan’s first  major  mainstream  venture,  after  his  indie  feature  Memento went on to become  a cult  hit  in it’s  own right.  Nolan  retains  some of  the  mainstream  elements,  the  wide  screen  panoramic  shots  of  the  Alaskan  landscape,  and  a couple of  action  scenes  thrown  in for good  measure, chase  scenes  and  the  climactic  shoot  out.  But  while  a  murder  mystery  thriller on the  surface  of  it,  Insomnia  in effect  is  more  of  a psychological  thriller  and  character  study.   While i  do  love  Nolan’s  Prestige  and  the  Batman  series,  i  feel  he  gives  his  best  when  doing   his  pyschological  studies  of  the  characters.   To me  Nolan, works  best  when  he  is  exploring  the  human mind,  it’s  intricacies  and complexities,  something  he  seems  to  relish in.   Insomnia  works  best  when  it  keeps  zooming  into  the  mind  of  it’s  main  protagonist  Will Dorner( Al  Pacino), a  LAPD veteran,  who  flies  into  the  remote  sleepy  town of  Nightmute, Alaska  along  with  his  partner  Hap Eckhart( Martin Donovan) to  investigate  the  brutal murder  of  a  teenage  girl   Kay  Connell.

Dorner is  met,  by the  local  police  Detective   Ellie  Burr(  Hilary  Swank),  who  literally hero  worships  Will,  having  closely  studied  every  case  of  his,   right  down to  the  fact,  about  how he  got  the scar  on  his  neck.   The  local  police  chief    Nyback,  also  happens to be  an  old  associate  of    Will.   The  opening  shots  beautifully  establish  the   small  town   atmosphere,  right  from  an  old  guy,  at  the  airport,  who  can’t  understand  why  some one like Ellie  would  be  a detective, to  the  sign  “Nightmute,  Halibut  Capital of the  World” flapping  around  on the  forlorn  looking  airport  to  the  rather  laid  back  nature  of  the  town.   As  Chief  Nyback  says  about the  scene there,  “No  blurred  lines. Just good guys  and bad  guys. Simple“.   In a town,  where  the  only  cases  reported  to the police  station  are   the  minor  stuff,  skirmishes and  some domestic  abuse kind,  Kay’s  brutal  murder  turns out  to be some thing  of  a  sensation.    Right  away  Nolan  establishes the  point  about  Will &  Hap  being  regarded  as  outsiders in  the  town,  more or less  intruders  kind.   One  great  scene,  when  Will  examines  Kay’s  dead  body, silence all over, just  the dripping  of  the  faucet,  and  then  slowly  establishing  the  fact,  that   the  man  who  killed  her,  had  done it  quite  methodically,  right  from chipping off  her  nails,  to  brushing  her hair up,  everything  possible  to  erase  any  traces  of  evidence.   But  then  as  Hap  points  out  “Even  the  best  make  mistakes”.
It  is  an  ironic  reference   to  Will  himself.  For  all  the legendary  status  Will  has  among  other cops,  the  reality  is  that   back  home  he  is  facing  a  serious  Internal  Affairs investigation.  And  this  is  where  the  pyschological  conflict  comes  out.  Will  is  facing  charges  of  having  planted  evidence  against  Weston Dobbs, in a  murder  case.  Will feels  he  has  done  no  wrong,  as  Dobbs  was  a child  rapist and murdered, who  had  brutally  sodomized  a  8 year old  boy,  and  left  his  body  hanging in  his  basement.  Hap  under  heavy  pressure  from Internal  Affairs,  wants to cut  a deal   that  would  allow  him  to  get  away.   Will  would  have  none of  it,  as  that  would  mean,   losing  everything  he  fought  for.  The  dialog  exchange  between  Hap & Will  at  the  lodge,  is  one of  the  best.  Will  will go to any  length, to  nab the crooks,  even if  that  means  planting  evidence.  Hap wants  to  get  out  of  this,  not  because of  any  ethical  considerations,  but  his  own  family  and financial  pressures.  The  clinch is  that if Will is indicted  of  the charges,  all  the  criminals  he  arrested  would be  freed.  While  not  much is  really  known about  Will, the  fact  is he is  the  cop  obsessed  with  nabbing  the  criminals,  not  willing to  compromise  out.

We did what we needed to do to make sure that son-of-bitch Dobbs paid for what he did.  And every bastard like him.  We say one word   about it and every case we ever brought in is going to blow wide open and they’ll   all walk.  Every last one.  And I am not   going to let that happen.  No deals.  No  compromises.  No discussions.

Hap  is  the  more  pragmatist  partner,  knowing  very well   that  men like Will  are  a  dying breed,  he  does not want to  face  the  consequences  for  Will’s  actions.   He  is  frustrated  with  Will’s  obstinacy,  his  rigidity, and  the  main issue here  is  that  while  Will  appears  to be sinking,  he  seems  all set  to take  Hap  in, something  he  wants  to avoid.

But I can tell you one thing.  I’m  getting too old for this cowboy cop  stuff.  Breaking the rules.  Cleaning up   messes.  We’re a dying breed, Will.  You’re a dying breed.

The  Insomnia  part is  established  early on, in a  great  moment,  when  Will  wakes up, the  light  streaming  on his face,  and  the  time  is  3:15 AM.    Will  trying  to  shut  out  the  sun light, closing the  shades,  and  the  light  again streaming back  in.  In  one  sense,  Will  is  unable  to  sleep because  of  the  climate  conditions in   Alaska, in summer  the sun never  sets,  so  even  at  3 AM in the  morning,  it  is  bright  and sunny, and in winter  there  is   no  sun  light  at  all. Something   which  could  drive  a  normal  person  insane,  unless  they  happen to be  Alaskan.  But is  the  sleeplessness   just  due  to  the  “White Light”   or  due to  Will’s  worry  about the  Internal  Affairs  investigation back  home,  that  could  ruin  his  entire  career  and  what  all  he stood  for.    In  fact,  if  one  takes it  metaphorically, the  light  streaming  into the  room, in  spite  of  Will’s  attempts  to keep  it  out,  could  be  the  Internal  Affairs  investigation,  that  keeps  tormenting Will psychologically,  in spite  of  his  best  attempts  to  keep it away  from his  mind.

At  one  stage  while  mentoring  Ellie,  Will mentions  to her  not  to  overlook  the  small stuff.   This when Ellie  feels  most  of  the cases  she works  on  are  pretty  much  minor  stuff,  bar  room fights, drunken brawls and the  kind.  Will is  the  kind  of  cop  obsessed  with  his  work,  some  one  who  worships  it.  Unfortunately  as  Hap  points  out, he  is  fast becoming  a dying breed.

It’s all about the small stuff.  Small  lies.  Small mistakes.  Small oversights.        People give themselves away in a traffic  violation just as much as they do in a     murder case.  It’s human nature.

But  that  begs  the  main  question,   “Does  the  end  justify  the means?”.  Will keeps  claiming  that  his  actions of  planting  evidence  were  necessary  to  nab  criminals  who  would  otherwise  use  the loop  holes in the law to get  away.  But  then the  tendency  to  play  God,   can be  a double  edged  sword.  The  same  tactics   could  also be used  against  an innocent  person.  And  Will’s   actions  are  something  that  would  haunt  him in a different  way  later on.
The  prime  suspect  in  Kay’s  murder  seems  to be  her  rather  abusive  boyfriend Randy  Stetz, a  wannabe  stud  kind,  Metallica  T shirt  and all.   While  Will  hates  Randy’s  cocky  attitude,  he  is  sure  that  he is not  the  murderer.   And  that  is  where  the  main  turning  point  comes  in to the  picture.   One of  the  best  shot  scenes  in the movie,  where  Will, Hap  and  the  other cops  stake  out,  the  suspect  at  a remote  log  cabin. Especially memorable the part when Will  chasing  the  suspect,  comes  out  from a  tunnel  into  the  thick fog,  Nolan shoots  this brilliantly.  Fog  swirling  around,  eerie  whiteness,  the  only  sound being the  water lapping on the shores.  The cops  shooting literally in the  dark,  at  the  figure, not  seen, covered  in the  mist.  You  actually  feel  the hopelessness, the desperation, as  the  shooting  goes  around in the  dark.    And  the  shot  hitting  some one.  Only  the  some  one happens  to  be  Will’s  partner   Hap.
Will’s  torment  intensifies,   while  Chief  Nyback  orders  a  probe  into  Hap’s  death,  Will  knows  the  truth,  but  conceals  it.   The  local  police  and  the  entire  town  of  Nightmute,   seems  to  believe   that  Hap  was  shot  dead  by  the  suspect,  Will  knows  that  the  bullet  which  killed  Hap  was  his  by  accident.  Will’s  sleeplessness  becomes  more  acute,  it  is  not  just  the    White  Night or  the  impending  IA  investigation,  it  is a  terrifying truth,  that  once  it  comes  out, will wreck  his  entire  life.  The  way  Nolan  establishes  Will’s  feeling  of  guilt,    is  brilliant,  be  it the  moment  where  he  stares  at a  dead  dog near the  garbage  dump,  or  his  inability  to  sleep  constantly  haunted  by the  images  of  Hap’s  bloodied  face  staring at  him  accusingly.   But  was  it  really  an  accidental  shooting  or  did  Will deliberately  get  rid  of  Hap,  considering  the IA  case?   Why  is  Will  who is otherwise  putting up a  brave face when it  comes to the  IA  investigation,  breaking  a cold  sweat  over  Hap’s  death?   Is  it a  fear  out of  guilt that  plagues  Will,  or  rather  a  fear  weighing  on  his  conscience, about  shooting dead  his  partner?
The  mystery  further deepens  when  Will  observes  Randy  flirting  around  with  Kay’s  friend  Tanya  at  her funeral.  And  on  interrogating  her,  comes to  know  of  the  person,  who  could  be  the  actual  culprit.  Some  one  who  promised to  take  Kay  out  from the  small town,  some  one  who  promised  to help  her.  And  that  some one  happens  to  be  Walter Finch(  Robin  Williams),  a    writer  of  detective  novels,  and  whose  books  Kay  happened to  love  reading.
I bet you haven’t been getting much      sleep.
This  is  the  call  the  proves  to be  the  the  trigger  for  Will’s  mental  disintegration.    And  the  best  part of  the  movie  for  me.   It  is  pretty  much  clear  from  his  actions  and   words,  that Walter  is  the  prime  culprit.  But  what  is  fascinating   is  the  way  he   plays  the  mind  games  with  Will.  The  battle  between  Will  and   Walter  is  more on  the  psychological  level.   And  Will  is  losing  it.  For  all  his  bravado,  he  knows  that    the  odds  are  stacked  up  against  him.    Walter  is  calm,  composed,  smooth  and  manipulative,  but  what  is  worse is  that  he  knows  the  real truth,  the  fact  that  Will   shot  Hap.   Something  he  uses  as  his  chief  weapon  against  Will,  tormenting him at  every  stage.   Walter  is  the  master  manipulator  here,  preying on  Will’s  weakness  and  insecurity,  of  the  truth  he is hiding.   One  of  the  best  shots  in  the  movie  is  when the  camera  focuses  on  Will’s  face,  haggard,  sleepless, unshaven,  carrying  the  weight  of  the  world  on  him.  Will  is   a person  carrying  multiple  burdens, the  burden of the  IA  investigation  back  him,  the  burden  of   shooting  his  partner  dead,  and   now  having  to  deal  with  an  opponent,  who  is  checkmating  him  psychologically at  every  level.
But  again  it  is  this  mental game  that  raises  some  of  the  most  fascinating  questions  to me.  Will  throughout  has  shown  to be  the  kind  of  person,    who  could  manipulate  evidence  for  his  own benefit.  Why  did  he  feel  so helpless  with  Walter?  Something  which  Walter  himself  wonders  about.    If  Will  really  claims  that  he  shot  dead  his  partner  by  accident,  why  does  he  feel guilty about  it?  And  more  important,  why  does  he  really  allow  Walter  to  use  that  to  his  advantage, to  turn the  tables  on  him.   Will  has  the  law  on his  side,  the  entire police department  in  Nightmute  trusts  and believes  in  him.  For  some  one  who  could  remove  the  evidence  of  him having shot  dead  his  partner,  getting  rid  of  Walter   in any  way  should  not  have  been  really much of an issue.  Or is  that  Will feels  he  has  had enough  of  circumventing  the  law  for  his own ends, his  own misdeeds  catching up  with him,  weighing  on  his  conscience.
For  me  the greatest  strength  of   Insomnia   is  the  way  Nolan  navigates  the  tricky, greyish  world  between black and white.    The  recurring  motif  of   the  close up shot  of the  blood  spreading  over the  sweater  all  in knots, is  metaphorical  of  Will’s  own  mind,  as  it  sinks  deeper  and  deeper into an abyss,   under  the burden  of  his own  guilty  conscience.  The  conflict between  Will  and  Walter, is  of  two  men, both  of  whom  claim to have accidentally committed  the crime.  But while  Will  is  burdened  by the  guilt  conscience,  Walter  seeks  to redeem  himself,  by preying  upon Will’s  conscience.   But  while  the  psychological  battle  between  Walter  and Will, is brilliantly  etched  out,  the  resolution at  the  ending  seems  totally  contrived.  It  was  as if  Nolan,  just wanted  to  make  it  more  audience  friendly,  by  patching  up  everything  a  tad  too  conveniently,  which  is  what  makes  Insomnia  fall short of  classic  status.
7 Comments
  1. A very under rated film with some great performances by seasoned & award winning actors. Robin Williams yet again proves he can play the sinister and warped bad guy. Its always been one of my favourite films well directed and with a fitting score.

  2. Another great review… an all-time favorite Al Pacino movie!!! Btw, have you also seen the original Norwegian film [Insomnia, 1997] starring Stellan Skarsgård on which thsi one is based?

    • Not seen the Norwegian original, so could never compare how good was this adaptation. But even on it’s own, find it a great movie.

  3. Fine write up of a truly under appreciated Christopher Nolan film. Even though it’s a remake, do check out the original starring Stellan Skarsgård, it’s a damn good one.

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