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Having established himself as the crown prince of the ambiguous thriller with Memento, Christopher Nolan might seem the logical guy to remake Insomnia, the 1997 Norwegian film that played a clever trick on film noir by transplanting it to the land of the midnight sun. Yet two questions immediately present themselves: Why should the director, who put a provocative spin on the genre with both Memento and the self-scripted Following, direct a remake at all? And why hire a master mystifier like Nolan to direct a movie that’s so much less enigmatic than the original?
At least the Americanized Insomnia is not the rote serial-killer procedural that some of its TV commercials pretend it is. Although the overeager ads disclose some information that might well have been kept hidden—notably the identity of the murderer—they distort the essence of the story as much as they reveal it. The film is not simply a contest between the customary dogged, incorruptible cop and the standard diabolical, taunting sociopath. It’s subtler than that, if not so subtle as its model.
In large part, Insomnia is less a remake than a reshoot. Although the script is credited to first-time Hollywood screenwriter Hillary Seitz, much of it comes from the film made by writer-director Erik Skjoldbjaerg and co-scripter Nikolaj Frobenius. Though transplanted from Norway to Alaska, the movie is still the story of an urban cop who arrives in the summertime Arctic, where he’s tormented by doubt, guilt, and a sun that never sets. LAPD detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), have been recruited by Dormer’s old pal, Alaskan police chief Nyback (Paul Dooley), to solve the sort of case that’s unusual in the remote if hardly pristine lakeside town of Nightmute: 17-year-old Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe) has been murdered, and by someone who knows enough about homicide-squad techniques to have cleaned the body of evidence.
The logical culprit is Kay’s boyfriend, Randy Stetz (Jonathan Jackson), who’s something of a roughneck, but he doesn’t seem sophisticated enough for the post-murder cleanup. Dormer quickly comes to suspect a local crime novelist, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), and baits a trap for him by spreading the word that the police found Kay’s book bag—which contains a copy of one of Finch’s books that he autographed for her. The lure attracts someone, but the person can’t be identified because he escapes through a tunnel and then into a misty area near the water. The L.A. cops and their Alaskan peers follow, and in the fog Dormer fires a shot. The person who falls is Eckhart.
Now Dormer has two parallel objectives: capturing the killer and concealing the fact that he shot his partner. The latter undertaking is complicated by an unexpectedly zealous internal investigation by local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), as well as a call from the killer—all right, you’ve seen the commercial; you know it’s Finch—who turns out to be the only person who saw Dormer shoot Eckhart. Nolan’s film, which runs about 20 minutes longer than its antecedent, adds some cat-and-mouse action, thus expanding Williams’ role. But it retains the same visual strategy, contrasting wide vistas and blinding sunlight with claustrophobic spaces and deep shadows.
In the original, Stellan Skarsgard played the central character in a coolly alienated mode that’s rare among mainstream Hollywood actors. (What American could do it? Well, Martin Donovan, for one.) Pacino is less detached than Skarsgard, but Nolan deserves credit for persuading not only the star good guy but also the villain to leave their inner hams at home. This is the least schtick-driven performance Pacino has given in years, and Williams gives perhaps his most restrained screen appearance ever. (The movie also resuscitates the career of Swank, whose post-Boys Don’t Cry showcase, The Affair of the Necklace, was so feeble that it never even opened in D.C.) Even when the sleepless Dormer begins his agitated struggles to bar the nonstop sunlight from his hotel room, Insomnia doesn’t lose its glacier-country cool.
The original film is terser and yet more frantic than the remake, which is an admirably crisp genre picture that ultimately proves too tidy. The fundamental schism between the two is Hollywood’s insistence on banishing the very quality that was previously Nolan’s trademark: ambiguity. Skarsgard’s character arrives in the frozen North with a vague cloud over his reputation, but Dormer’s equivalent back story is divulged in meticulous detail. Every development is explained, every wrinkle is ironed out, and—in the crucial narrative divergence between the two films—every debt is paid. This prim outlook ejects the tale from the messy, murky, and intrinsically unjust world of Nolan’s previous work. Whereas the Norwegian Insomnia is a film noir shot under a 10,000-lumen bulb, the American one is not a noir at all. CP