That Christopher Nolan's first film, Following, should go largely unheralded makes sense. The public often views an artist's first significant success as his or her debut project, and the little-seen, no-budget indie noir understandably falls through the cracks at times even if some significant publications should really know about its existence when they discuss Nolan. But the relatively anonymity of the director's follow-up, Insomnia, defies simple explanation. Memento won him a cult audience, Batman Begins would convert that pocket of thousands of fans into millions, and in-between lies this thriller, a remake of a Swedish film. Some point to its remake status as reason for the blind spot in discussion concerning Nolan's corpus, but that ignores that every one of his features save his first and his latest is an adaptation of some sort. The cast, too, suggests a far more popular picture, as it openly boasts three Academy Award winners.
Whatever the reason, the public's overlooking of the film is a shame, as Insomnia is not only a crackerjack thriller but perhaps the most coherently, tightly structured film in Nolan's canon, even above Memento. I have not yet seen the original film, but its alleged existential preoccupations are displayed in Nolan's film, naturally, in concrete terms. The titular insomnia plagues protagonist Will Dormer, an LAPD detective sent with his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), to investigate a homicide in Nightmute, Alaska for a number of reasons. Yet the most visible source of his torment is the midnight sun of an Alaskan summer, always present, wreaking havoc with the systems of those unaccustomed to it.
It morphs into a symbol of the constant oppression of his condition, an unending day that ironically sheds light only on the cop, not the criminal. For Dormer is not simply an ace detective but one who has a single nagging issue in his past, a case of falsified evidence that he produced to convict a kidnapping/murder suspect. As he heads to Alaska to help the investigation, Internal Affairs looks into the discrepancy in Dormer's file, and perhaps they sent him so far away that he could do nothing to affect the inquiry. Not only that, but Eckhart, who implicitly reveals that he at least knows what Will did if not actually abet him, cut an immunity deal to protect himself, ensuring testimony against his partner.
This weighs down on Dormer as much as the sun, and he seems distant and unfocused from the start. He proposes an ingenious method of luring the killer back to the crime scene, but immediately second-guesses himself in front of his colleagues, afraid that the ruse is not airtight and could lead to further IA issues down the road. But the others convince him, and a stakeout is organized. One of the locals jumps the gun, however, and before anyone can get a good look at the killer he realizes what's going on and escapes through a tunnel in the cabin. As the officers pursue him in heavy fog, the killer wounds one, but the real shock comes when Will takes aim at a figure and fires, only to find that he's mortally wounded Hap.
This setup completely shifts the film from a mere cat-and-mouse thriller into something else altogether; in fact, Nolan freely gives away the killer's identity by the halfway mark. What he crafts in its stead is yet another rumination on duality, of two men who cannot be easily separated when placed together. The murderer understands this and initiates phone calls to Will to both taunt him with the revelation that he saw the cop shoot his partner and to attempt to plead his case. The mysterious man even sympathizes with Will's insomnia, noting that he too couldn't sleep when he first came to Alaska.
Will soon figures out that the man on the other end of the line is Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a pulp writer whom the murdered girl loved to read and entered into a nebulous relationship with. After a failed confrontation, Finch arranges for the two to meet on a barge, and their conversation stands as one of the finest exchanges between curiously close polar opposites in Nolan's career; hell, it even deserves comparison with Pacino's great meeting with De Niro in Heat. Williams has always been a notorious mugger -- frankly, Pacino doesn't have much subtlety anymore either -- but his low-key efforts are as chilling and captivating as anything any great actor has ever delivered. Without ever raising his voice, shedding a tear or making any outward display, Williams dives into Finch's feelings over killing Kay, calmly recounting how he never intended to hurt her, but that a few missteps led to a situation in which he panicked. That line between intentionally and accidentally killing someone is reflected in Will, as we cannot be sure whether he shot Hap by mistake or deliberately killed his partner to prevent his testimony. After all, how is it that Will couldn't make out his partner in the fog but Finch could stand farther away and see the whole thing unfold? Ultimately, the only difference between the two may be that, when he messes up, Finch calmly removes evidence from a crime scene, while Dormer plants it.
For Nolan, the suspense of the film comes less from the situation than the characters' reaction to it. He visualizes Dormer's thoughts through rapid intercutting: first he reenacts Kay Connell's murder in his mind as he studies her corpse in a manner similar to the various flashbacks of CSI shows, but soon the jarring editing becomes symptomatic of his mental breakdown due to lack of sleep, and Nolan's camera drifts off at times to focus on random items within the frame.
The director also enhances the drama with the addition of a third major character: Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a local detective fresh out of the academy who obsessively studied Will's own cases. Her overeager attitude amuses Will at first, her breathless recitation of textbook answers marking her only significant dialogue. Yet her bookish dedication parlays into good fieldwork, and it is precisely through her taking Will's aphorisms and methods to heart that she begins to uncover the "small stuff" that Dormer says to always look for, finding discrepancies in his story of Eckhart's shooting. On some level, Will may expect this and may even encourage Ellie to figure out his lie by not signing off on her report of Eckhart's death until she further reviews the facts. Will's transgressions are handled with sympathy: he planted evidence on that alleged kidnapper in L.A. because he could not bear to see a man he knew was guilty go free, and -- as far as we know -- he did not intend to kill his partner and covered it up out of shame and fear. Yet Ellie's seeming decision to go through with revising the report and incriminating Dormer is the one redemptive act of the film: with both Dormer and the killer covering up accidental issues and making everything worse, Burr proves a truly great police officer by not breaking the law based on emotional whim.
Warner Bros. slyly re-released Insomnia, a film about a man driven to madness over a lack of sleep, to coincide with Inception, a film about people who flirt with insanity by getting lost in dreams. That such a good film, one that made twice its budget at the box office upon original release, required a clever bit of marketing is baffling. Insomnia not only delves into Nolan's pet themes in an intelligent and intuitive manner, it's simply an entertaining film, free of the convoluted puzzles of the director's other movies. Maybe that's why it doesn't enjoy any significant reputation these days: Nolan's strength, after all, is his ability to make his Escher-like mazes coherent and engrossing enough to pass seamlessly as mass entertainment, but Insomnia is no dumber for proceeding in linear fashion. I, for one, would not hesitate to call it one of his finest works.