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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
from Film Forum, 02/07/02

In May, we'll get an American remake of the artful festival hit Insomnia from director Chris Nolan (Memento). Al Pacino stars as a cop hunting down the killer of a teenage girl. But why can't he sleep? Robin Williams and Hilary Swank costar. Hopefully the film will retain the original's psychological complexities and treat seriously its central themes of sin, conscience, and consequences.

from Film Forum, 05/23/02

Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento) is distinguishing himself as a director of films about good men going bad. The characters at the center of his films are far more complex, and far more human, than Anakin Skywalker. Insomnia opens this weekend, and I am confident it will be remembered as one of the year's best films. It is being described as a remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 arthouse film of the same title, but Nolan's revisions have drastically changed the story and even improved on it. (My full review is at Looking Closer.) It's an intense, involving thriller. But beyond that, it is an honest exploration of how a person can, with righteous intentions, stray into unrighteousness.

Will Dormer (Al Pacino) looks like a good cop trying to hunt down a clever killer. But he's also an aging professional trying to finish his career with a blameless reputation. Thus, when he and his partner travel to Alaska to hunt down a killer, he goes to great lengths to cover up anything that might look like an error or a lapse in judgment. When a second body turns up, and Dormer realizes he has made a dreadful mistake, he goes to dangerous extremes trying to appear blameless in the eyes of the local cops. Crime writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) might be the killer Dormer is looking for, but he knows things that make Dormer hesitant to actually catch him.

Nolan sets this challenging story in a small Alaskan town on the edge of the wilderness, where fog blurs the lines between right and wrong, and where relentless, cold light burns like pangs of conscience. It's as artful and compelling a thriller to come from an American director in a good while. And it gives you plenty to ponder afterward.

We'll look more closely at it next week, as other reviews come in. If you see it, let me know what you think.

from Film Forum, 05/30/02

In last week's Film Forum, I offered my own thoughts on Insomnia, the new thriller from director Christopher Nolan (my complete review is at Looking Closer). Over the weekend, reviewers everywhere turned in more praise for the film, making it the year's first title likely to be remembered at Oscar time. (Perhaps The Rookie will make the grade, but I fear it was not audacious enough to leave a lasting impression on the forgetful Academy members.) Insomnia's top notch cast is winning raves: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank are indeed very impressive. But it is even more interesting to see how this film, like last month's surprise hit Changing Lanes, is leading critics and audiences alike to chew over its unsettling moral questions. The film opened in third place this week, behind Attack of the Clones and Spider-Man, an impressive debut for a late-spring release light on the visual effects.

A critic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "Insomnia is a dramatic character study unlikely to have anyone dozing off." It introduces us to Will Dormer (Pacino), a tough L.A. cop who is sent to Alaska to help investigate the death of a young woman. Dormer is trying to keep his reputation clean during a period when his department is under intense scrutiny, but his fear of becoming tainted leads to mistrust and anxiety that mar his ability to solve the case. When another corpse is discovered, Dormer struggles with whether he bears the responsibility for it. Plagued by guilt and fear, he tampers with evidence to cover his tracks, while continuing to set traps for the killer that he came to catch. All this time, the sun never sets, keeping him awake at night, burning him like his own conscience.

Several questions take their toll on Dormer's heart, and they challenge us as well. Should he commit a crime to achieve a greater good? What makes him different from the villain he is chasing? Who should we be rooting for? Do the ends justify the means?

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) calls Insomnia "a well-done morality play. Both Pacino and Williams have the potential to go over the top as actors, but Nolan elicits restrained, effective performances from each of them, and their cat-and-mouse sparring is riveting. Insomnia is a satisfying thriller that confirms Christopher Nolan as a talented filmmaker to watch."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk), Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), and Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) highlight the moral dilemma at the center of the film. McClure writes, "Insomnia shows how one moment, act, or conflict can change your life, your circumstances and your entire future, and how once you blur those lines of truth, everything becomes relative." Elliott praises Pacino's performance as riveting (a popular term among the film's critics), but he isn't as complimentary of Williams: "He fails to put any kind of distinctive stamp on his role. It is a subdued and rather bland performance." Boatwright calls the film "a most compelling and somewhat demanding thriller. The performances, the direction, and the cinematography are each outstanding."

But Joseph L. Kalcso and Lisa Rice (Movieguide) sound like they have seen a different film: "It tries to succeed, but regrettably … [it] takes an increasingly negative toll the longer it runs. Nolan … does not fail to miss every possible opportunity to turn this movie from a good police thriller to a great one. Insomnia fails to make its point at almost every turn." And Mary Draughon (Preview) says, "Discerning viewers, who refuse to support films with filthy language, will certainly avoid this thriller and hope Hollywood pays attention!"