(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.