Christopher Nolan has a talent for using the cinematic medium to allow viewers to relate to characters with special conditions. In Memento, he uses the film’s narrative structure to force viewers to look at the story through the eyes of a man who cannot form new memories. He uses different, yet still very effective methods to achieve this in Insomnia. Al Pacino’s character, detective Dormer, suffers from insomnia due to issues weighing on his conscience and the unrelenting Alaska sun. Rather than allowing viewers to relate to this character through the use of an unconventional narrative structure, Nolan instead employs highly stylized editing and sound design. Fast, jarring cuts between scenes highlight the effects of Dormer’s sleeplessness, and pounding ambient noises simulate the sensory overload that may accompany such a condition. Cinematically, I find these techniques to be the most interesting facet of the film. Nolan’s skill for crafting the texture of a film to fit his characters is at full force in Insomnia, and it is a joy to see how it manifests itself in different situations.
In terms of its story, I found Insomnia to be nearly as engaging as Memento. I don’t want to spoil too many of its plot points, but it involves the tension between the truth and blissful ignorance, the debilitating effects of guilt, and the question of whether or not we are truly in control of our actions. For the most part, the film addresses these topics with grace and subtlety. If you’re looking for a well-crafted psychological thriller with an engaging narrative within the Nolan filmography, Insomnia is your second best choice. You can probably guess the first.
In his review, Roger Ebert criticizes Insomnia‘s few action sequences, including a foot chase and a shootout. He claims that they are unnecessary when the film already has so much psychological tension built up. While I agree that in their current state they detract from the viewing experience, I believe that if they had been crafted differently that they could have added significantly more. They feel long and drawn out, as if they are there simply to fill some kind of action-to-dialogue quota. If kept significantly more brief, they could have served to maintain viewer interest and preserve the relatively quick pace of the film without sacrificing any of the film’s psychological impact. Despite its lackluster and pointless action, Insomnia‘s stylish flair and fascinating narrative make it another outstanding film by Nolan.