Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Insomnia (DVD) (2002)

Seasonal affective disorder is particularly pronounced in the higher latitudes

A friend of mine told me once that noir is not a genre but a state of mind. I laughed at him for all of 5 seconds before realising that yes, you can forgo the realism (Sin City), the detective protagonist (A History of Violence), or even mirror the morally conflicted cop with a morally conflicted criminal (Infernal Affairs) and still end up with what undoubtedly feels like a noir film anyway.

The noir trend this decade is typified by directors who make an creative exercise of producing noir films by forgoing certain sacred cows of the genre, but the most radical move to date was made by Erik Skjoldbjærg, with his decision to relocate the detective story to a small town just inside the Arctic Circle, where there are 24 hours of daylight in summer. If you think on the meaning of the word noir, this is about the most sacred cow that can be slaughtered. In this 2002 US remake and adaptation of the Norwegian film of the same name, the original conceit is revisited, given depth and even broadened.

In this installment of Insomnia, Al Pacino plays LAPD detective Will Dormer, who is sent (or perhaps has pulled some strings to be sent) to a small town in Alaska to investigate a murder, together with his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

The local police department may feel this is a routine investigation that will no doubt be sped up by Dormer’s legendary skill, but the detective is also trying to get out of the heat of a departmental investigation. Apparently, like some noir heroes, Dormer is willing to bend a few rules in order to get the guilty the justice they deserve – or maybe not, but we aren’t sure, and neither does Eckhart, who decides to cooperate with the departmental investigation.

In the land of the midnight sun, what happens is the noir film becomes interiorised. Or as my friend put it, the essence of noir then becomes a state of mind that the director must impress upon the audience. What I liked is how Christopher Nolan does it by refocusing the film on the state of mind of Dormer, documenting the decline of his body and mind from insomnia (until one acclimatises to 24-hour daylight, it is somewhat difficult to sleep), guilt, and paranoia.

When the murderer turns up in an unexpected fashion in the half-way mark of the movie, another conceit is introduced: from a whodunit, Insomnia switches to a “why did he do it” mystery, and more importantly, the interaction between Dormer and his designated prey is complicated by the fact that the murderer is more than aware of the investigations in New York, and wants to simultaneously help and blackmail Dormer in return for his freedom.

Will the detective bend the rules yet one more time? Will he bend the rules instead to ensure the capture of the murderer? Nolan in his remake does some tweaking of the plot to ensure that Dormer is a shade more sympathetic to audiences, a move that actually brings the character to noir specifications of an amoral but conflicted protagonist. Also, the casting choice and direction of the murderer is an act of brilliance – no one expects Robin Williams is able to pull off a “normal to the point of banality” killer, which is more creepy than a demented killer type, and somewhat appropriate for this noir with many twists.

Whether it is for Nolan actually improves on the original, the acting of Al Pacino and Robin Williams, or the cat and mouse game between the two, Insomnia is worth the viewing and more than worth the DVD purchase.

First published at incinemas on 2 August 2006

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