As the Barbehneimer phenomenon rises to fever pitch, I thought it’d be interesting to revisit Christopher Nolan’s first try at directing a box office success story. Insomnia included an amazing cast, with Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Swank all in great shape. But the thriller didn’t thrill audiences, and it remains Nolan’s most underseen film. Let’s talk about it, though, and see if we can figure out why.
Insomnia has a layered plot for sure, but it’s nothing compared to Nolan’s previous effort, Memento. You can definitely tell that even though he wanted to keep his air of mystique, Nolan was aiming for a wider appeal.
Pacino plays a disgraced LA detective being investigated by Internal Affairs that goes, along with his partner, to a remote Alaskan town to investigate the muder of a teen girl. It plays fairly straight forward from this point on, without any major surprises along the way. It’s part thriller, part detective novel. It’s not bad, but certainly not Nolan’s best.
It’s important to note that Insomnia is the lowest-rated feature film in Nolan’s career: 7.2 stars on IMDb. What comes next? Tenet, at 7.3. So, the simplest film in his filmography, right next to (arguably) the most convoluted. Perhaps a happy medium is where we’re all most comfortable?
The Dialog & Acting
To be honest, though the plot holds no surprises, sometimes it’s the dialog that lets the film down. You can feel some of the forced lines, particularly in big interaction scenes where there’s a lot of moving parts. Pacino, Williams and Swank all deliver their lines beautifully and there’s a ton of chemistry between Pacino and Williams in particular, that help carry the tougher parts of the script along. However, this is no One Hour Photo, and Williams’ screen time is far, far less that I’d have liked it to be.
As for the rest of the acting, to be honest there’s not much to complain about. It’s all perfectly serviceable, and had this film been made by a director other than Nolan, it’d probably be quite high up on their achievement list. Alas, in a stable that includes some of the best comic book movies ever made, some intriguing plot devices and of course, Oppenheimer, Insomnia just feels too generic and safe for its own good.
I revisited this movie last night after about a decade. It used to be one of my favorite films, in large part because of the insomnia elements. I’ve been suffering with sleep disorders for about 20 years, and it’s not really a topic that’s as discussed as it should be. Insomnia as a phenomenon is also fascinating and terrifying, because of how vastly and rapidly it deteriorates mental health and functions.
Last night, however, I felt a bit deflated. I wanted Robin Williams’ character to be deeper, more layered. There was a lot of emphasis on Pacino and the Internal Affairs situation, which I felt did not serve the wider story as much as another 10 minutes of Williams would have.
The whole thing just feels like it was played safe. And it’s understandable: it was the first time Nolan was given a bigger budget and access to A-list actors like Pacino and Williams. I’m sure the studio had way more influence over his filmmaking back then than they do now.
But when I consume something like a Nolan film, I don’t want the skimmed milk version. I’d much rather have too much Nolan in a film (like in Tenet) than too little.
A Stepping Stone
I am, however, aware of how cinema works. I always remember a talk Kevin Smith did, where he was asked about working with Bruce Willis. He wanted to make Red State (my favorite Smith film) and he was looking for funding.
During an investor meeting, he went in ready to pitch, only to hear the investor say: “this isn’t necessary. I know you’ve worked with Bruce Willis. That’s all I need. Here’s the money”.
I’m sure a similar situation happened to Nolan, even if some details are different. He would not have been given Batman Begins without Insomnia. I’m sure of it. Of course, Insomnia wasn’t a huge success (critically or commercially). But it wasn’t a huge flop, either. And Nolan showed that he was able to work with bigger talent and a bigger budget.
And looked at from such a perspective, Insomnia really isn’t too bad. It’s certainly better than Smith’s own stepping stone, Cop Out. It’s also a decent little thriller in its own right.
It certainly didn’t set the world on fire like Oppenheimer did. But if you have some time and want a nice flick to pass the time, it’ll certainly do.