Christopher Nolan is a director who needs no introduction. Ever since he broke into the mainstream with his work on Memento, he has consistently pumped out masterful blockbusters, and he has arguably never made a legitimately bad movie. Films like The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar are the first to come to mind, but sometimes it is worth diving even deeper into the more underrated work of a film icon. When it comes to Nolan, that movie is Insomnia, and fifteen years after its debut, it remains the Dunkirk director's most underappreciated masterpiece.
For those of you who do not know, Christopher Nolan's Insomnia is actually a loose remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name -- in fact, it's Nolan's only film on which he does not have a writing credit. It centers on a veteran detective of questionable morality named Will Dormer (Al Pacino) who is brought in to solve the vicious murder of a teenage girl in an Alaskan town where the sun never sets right as there is an internal affairs investigation into his own shady past. Unable to sleep upon his arrival in the city, Dormer's investigation becomes increasingly complicated as his past comes back to haunt him while he finds himself locked in a vicious battle of wits against Alaskan true crime author Walter Finch (Robin Williams).
When I say that Insomnia is Christopher Nolan's most underrated masterpiece, I mean it. Among the feature films that he has personally directed since Memento debuted back in 2001, it is the only one not to have a place on the IMDb Top 250 list. Critics generally liked it when it came out, but audiences appear to have forgotten about it, and that is something that we aim to change.
There's absolutely no question that Insomnia is Christopher Nolan's simplest and most stripped down film to date, but that arguably feels like its biggest asset. Nolan has often been bombarded with accusations that his films lack emotion or that they rely more on a method of style over substance, but Insomnia handily sidesteps all of those criticisms. Without any semblance of flash or gimmick, Nolan delivers an effortlessly lean thriller that's anchored by two powerhouse performances by Robin Williams and Al Pacino. It's not a blockbuster, it's just well-executed neo-noir cinema.
Make no mistake, these two Hollywood legends are absolutely at the top of their game in Insomnia. Their chops were well-established before this film, but Nolan still deserves credit for getting two Oscar-worthy performance out of both of them. For the role of Will Dormer, Pacino certainly falls back on a few of his classic acting techniques, but his willingness to go all in on Dormer's instability, irritability and exhaustion easily makes this one of his best performances of the last two decades. Then there's Robin Williams, who nearly steals every one of his scenes. We had seen him play serious characters before in films like Good Will Hunting, but his turn as Finch (along with his role in One Hour Photo, which was also released in 2002) showed just how good he could be when he went all in on a darker role.
There are a lot of scenes in Insomnia that epitomize that idea, but one of the best is a phone call between Dormer and Finch towards the film's third act. Check it out below.
Looking beyond the performances in that scene (which, again, are fantastic), the editing instantly jumps out. Note the choppiness of it and the way in which the murder is intercut with Walter Finch's increasingly agitated monologue. It takes one of the most boring and static concepts in film (two characters talking on a phone) and gives it the kinetic energy of a fist fight.
This trend of choppy, yet coherent editing pops up numerous times throughout Insomnia, and it consistently helps keep the audiences in a state of unease throughout the runtime of the film. In the same way that Will Dormer fades in and out of lucidity as he goes longer and longer without sleep, the movie's editing style keeps the audience perpetually off-balance and unable to properly get a read on the situation in front of them. By doing this, Nolan turns the camera into a character in its own right and actually elevates a seemingly simple thriller far above what most entries in the genre could ever achieve.
In that regard, Insomnia is a quintessential example of a director making a near-perfect movie without being too flashy about it. It's different from most of Christopher Nolan's other movies, but that's ultiamtely what makes it so special. Next time you find yourself tempted to watch The Dark Knight for the twelfth time, seriously consider taking a step back and giving this one another look. Fifteen years after its initial release, Insomnia never fails to deliver the thrills.