If you haven’t heard about director Christopher Nolan’s latest cinematic feat, “Oppenheimer,” you probably don’t spend a ton of time on the internet. The movie, which came out July 21 and chronicles the life of the so-called father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, has been making waves on social media as one of the most-anticipated films of the summer.
In preparation, some friends and I have been rewatching past Nolan films. We started with “Memento” and continued this week with 2002’s “Insomnia.” I’d never seen either, and was setting my expectations high based on my love for Nolan’s 2014 “Interstellar” and 2017 “Dunkirk.”
Though lauded as one of Nolan’s most underrated works, “Insomnia” proved to be a wholly unremarkable remake about unlikeable characters playing out a familiar cop procedural.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, “Insomnia” follows Al Pacino as Detective Will Dormer, of the Los Angeles Police Department, who is embroiled in controversy and sent to Alaska to assist with a murder case in a small town. Early in the movie, Dormer shoots his partner, who, confused in dense fog, he mistakes for their prime murder suspect — Robin Williams’ Walter Finch.
Dormer’s partner, who had earlier confessed that he would comply with the LAPD’s investigation into Dormer, says with his dying breath that Dormer meant to kill him. Finch sees this occur and spends the rest of the movie taunting Dormer, who tells the department that their suspect killed his partner.
What follows is a slow descent by Pacino’s character into deliria. Unable to sleep because of Alaska’s notorious midnight sun, we see Dormer become more frazzled and reckless with each passing day. In some instances, he works to throw the local department off of Finch’s trail in favor of protecting his own secret about how his partner really died.
It’s often said that people are their own worst critics, and I’d certainly be guilty of hypocrisy if I said I don’t sometimes look back on my own work from 10 years ago and cringe. Practice makes perfect, and it makes sense that I don’t find Nolan’s earlier films as masterful as his recent work.
Still, there is no shortage of police procedural drama movies, and in my opinion there is little room in the canon of American cinema for new installments in the genre that don’t have a meaningfully refreshing angle. “Insomnia” fails to offer such an angle.
Between a cohort of deeply unlikable characters, a somewhat cliched plot and some bungles when it comes to portraying Alaska accurately, I don’t see many rewatches of “Insomnia” in my future. If ever I feel compelled to revisit this story, I’d probably watch the original Norwegian version.
The problem with making your protagonist a corrupt cop who is collaborating with a murderer to cover up their collective crimes is that I don’t feel compelled to root for either of them. This dynamic is offset somewhat by Hilary Swank’s Detective Ellie Burr, who does her own investigation into Dormer’s erratic behavior, but is less compelling as it is frustrating and off putting.
Further, the movie, set in Nightmute, is clearly based on towns in Southeast Alaska — dense, rainforest-like trees along a murky coast — and indeed, the movie was filmed mostly in Squamish, British Columbia, close to Hyder, Alaska. The real-life Nightmute is a village in the Bethel Census Area and would certainly see more extreme daylight in the summer.
All this is to say that I think people wanting to watch an eerie cop movie might be better served by those that push the envelope, either in format, craft or narrative style.
“Insomnia” surely is not the first movie I’d recommend to someone looking to dabble in the works of Nolan, and I rest assured I’ll be grateful for how far he’s come when I leave the theater after a showing of “Oppenheimer.”
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.