Nolan exerts an exacting, almost hermetic control over his films--although he's a thoroughly British filmmaker, his clean style of directing seems more in line with the men like Michel Haneke & Krzysztof Kieslowski. However, Haneke & Kieslowski have never dabbled in the thriller field, which has (with one rather large superhero exception) been completely Nolan's purview. It's arguable, and very easily so, that even Batman Begins falls right into line with Nolan's various male obsessives--Christian Bale's Batman is just as obsessive as either of the leads he plays in the Prestige, as is Hugh Jackman just as consumed by the same addiction to revenge that haunts the memory-deprived Guy Pearce in Nolan's breakout success, Memento. Even Nolan's quiet debut, Following, is focused on a man who's obsession with identity leads him into the trap of a man obsessed with control.
Insomnia was to be Nolan's breakout mainstream film--a film overstuffed with recent Academy Award winners, an Americanized remake of a Norweigen cult success. It, as all Nolan's post-Following films, looks superb, has masterful sound editing and is contains some excellent performances from a wide collection of character actors. All in all, its appearance is that of a Christopher Nolan film. Yet it's neither as good as the film it is an adaptation of, nor does its quality as a story match up to the pristine appearance that the film itself contains.
Insomnia was a remake of a Norweigen film by a young director named Erik Skjoldbjaerg, a man who's only other notable impact in America was the truncated, and by all reports awful, Cristina Ricca star vehicle Prozac Nation. Skjoldbjaerg's Insomnia is one of those rare perfect debuts--a film that's part Hitchcock, part Bergman, through the lens of The Seventh Continent. Starring Stellan Skarsgard and scored by Biosphere, it's a film that is boilingly uncomfortable, with a protagonist that's completely selfish and cruel. Skarsgard, in what would later become Al Pacino's role, nearly rapes the local hotelier, molests and psychologically tortures a young girl, and it isn't until the close of the film that he decides to actually finish the job he was sent to Norway for in the first place--to catch the killer of a young girl. The original closes with him, having escaped scot-free in an orgy of suspicion, driving away alone.
As can be expected with a major American remake from a young director, working with a larger studio budget and some extremely big-name actors, Nolan's decisions to excise the more unsettling parts of the original aren't at all surprising. Studio films in America are never fully separate from the impetus to make money, and the likelihood of a big-budget thriller showcasing Al Pacino sexually manhandle a child solely to get information is nil. The innkeeper, played by Maura Tierney in Nolan's film, is also, unsurprisingly, turned into one of those classic Hollywood plot devices: she exists so that Al Pacino can have someone to bare his soul too, after all, it wouldn't be Hollywood without some cheap form of moralization for Pacino's various illegalities. In the original, it's clear that Skarsgard is guilty of some, if not many, forms of malfeasance prior to his arrival in Norway--in Nolan's it's explicitly laid out that Pacino framed a particularly nasty killer. And therein do our troubles begin.
Removing rape and molestation isn't the problem with the remake--in all truth, it's rather pleasant to not have to experience it. After all, it's not these acts that present Skarsgard as such a dark, unsettling character--it's the combination of his almost completely internalized performance and the stark humanness of everyone around him that allows his merest signs of aggression to come across so strongly. Pacino hasn't given a quiet performance of any merit since the Godfather films--choosing instead to vary his booming vocals and unpredictable behavior, and his best work has been in films that allowed that type of explosive work to shine: the lunatic obsessive Hanna in Heat, the selfish idealist Lowell Bergmann of The Insider are two brilliant films that would be unthinkable without Pacino's brand of male machismo. Insomnia was a different beast, altogether. Choosing to play the role as a man who seems constantly on the verge of a coma, he raises his voice rarely in the film, and he never, ever, opens his eyes beyond a half-lidded squint. While the setting of both films allows for this, being set in the bizarre parts of the world where the sun doesn't set for weeks at a time, Pacino and Nolan's choice to have the lead play the role as if the character is slowly reaching the point where all his scenes would be performed fast asleep is one that clashes, irritatingly so, with Skarsgards performance. The truth of an insomniac, as it's portrayed in the Norwegian film, is that of a man who can't sleep, yes, but it doesn't make him less of the man that he is--it just shaves off all the self awareness, the censor, the willingness to allow any external force influence his behavior. Whereas it's always clear in the Norwegian film that Skarsgard is not to be trusted, Pacino's tired stumbling leads the audience to feel a meaningless sympathy for his behavior, knowing that he'll make the right choices, the only drama is whether or not his exhaustion will prevent him from having the chance. The choice only worsens as the film reaches the introduction of the murderer, played here by Patch Adams hideous Robin Williams. Williams, a man who's choices in acting range from playing idiot man-children to idiot woman-children, is so far removed from what's required in the role that, at his worst moments, the film veers close to some kind of farce. He's neither intimidating, frightening, or the least bit believable as a man who's loneliness led to obsession, and then had his obsession turn to murder. His lack of ability even removes from the viewer the chance to see that thruline that exists throughout Nolan's other work: a man willing to sacrifice everything and anything for that which lays beyond his reach. By the time the remake reaches it's Hollywood conclusion, where Pacino lies dying in the arms of Hilary Swank, extolling to her the virtue of "never losing your way," the film has meandered so far from having a discernible point of view that it's only curiosity, and the excellent cinematography, that maintains the viewers interest.
Nolan hasn't returned to the field of the remake since, and considering the nihilistic behavior of his protagonists in The Prestige, it's likely that whatever gross sentimentality that infected Insomnia has been excised both by the mediocre response it received, and the opportunity to apply it to a film more willing to receive it, that being Batman Begins. The type of immature bravado displayed in Insomnia makes sense in a comic book film--it is totally undesirable, however, in a film that is meant to appeal to adults.
-Tucker Stone, 2007