Hollywood has a pretty bad track record with translating foreign cinema into something Americans will watch without having to read subtitles. Foreign movies often have great concepts but lacks the resources for a high-end treatment. So Hollywood does what America does best: take somebody else’s idea, pretend it’s theirs, put enough varnish on it to make it shine and hope that folks won’t realize that the end result possesses not a shred of originality. Often, it shows. But to every rule, there is an exception, and in 2002, Christopher Nolan proved it with his taut, mesmerizing remake of a Norwegian thriller that not only transcends the original but turns a simple story of right and wrong into a relentless examination of guilt, conscience and innocence. If ever there was a movie worth staying up late for, it is this one: Insomnia.
The story begins in Nightmute, Alaska, as two LAPD detectives, Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart, fly in to help find out who killed local girl Kay Conell. Nightmute is a small fishing town well north of the Arctic Circle, where one half of the year its constant daytime and the other half, endless night. Dormer and Eckhart are on loan thanks to a personal favor their boss is paying to Nightmute’s chief of police. But really, it’s to get the cops out of town while internal affairs tears up the department looking for dirt. Dormer and Eckhart both have crossed a few lines in their time, and the IA tension is taking its toll. So, they throw themselves into finding young Kay’s killer, somebody who brutally beat her to death in what appears to be a moment of homicidal passion, but then cleaned her body with unnerving calmness and detail. Whoever the killer is, it’s somebody who knows how cops think. And the closer Dormer and Eckhart get to their quarry—aided by a smart and eager NIghtmute rookie detective named Ellie Burr—the more the ceaseless daylight, lack of sleep and conflicts of conscience begin to take their toll. They say a person can only survive without sleep for a few days. Will Dormer is about to put that limit to the test in order to catch a killer. But as long as he keeps looking in the mirror, he knows his job is only half done.
From beginning to end, Nolan’s Insomnia catapults over its progenitor, which is no mean feat, as the original Insomnia is also a terrific movie (if you are not deeply unnerved by what it looks like when an entire town is seemingly furnished by IKEA). Our protagonist Dormer has a deep reservoir of dark secrets that are weighing upon him, and his relationship with his partner Eckhart is well and truly tightly wound. These are good police who have crossed the line in pursuing justice at some point and know it’s going to catch up with them at some point. Well, now that point is here, and when you’ve been a cop this long, the only thing you can do to stave off the inevitable is more work. And there, we see the movie smoothly hum along in low gear as our heroes partner with the locals in an investigation that really shouldn’t take more than an afternoon or so. And it doesn’t. Until.
About a third of the way into the movie, we’re treated to a chase sequence within a fog bank that is disorienting and tense, and quickly removes Dormer and Eckhart from the zone where they have successfully collared so many other bad guys in the past. There are only a few gunshots in the entire scene, but by the time it’s over, we feel like we have sat through an extended gunfight and are left to contend with results that we’re not usually led to expect in a movie of this kind. What transpires in that scene isn’t as important as what happens next, since this moment is when the movie truly begins.
Dormer is already strung out; the stress of internal affairs breathing down his neck, the disastrous chase into the fog, the inability to sleep, the moral quandaries that come with Dormer’s particular style of detective work…it all adds to a slow and steady disintegration of Dormer himself. As we see him work Kay’s case, his slipping focus, his need to circle certain squares, and his inability to control the full details of the situation all combine into a kind of blurry whirlwind that we know Dormer cannot escape. The only question is, does Will?
It’s an open question, and one asked more and more forcefully by Ellie Burr, whose obvious talent for policework, even more obvious admiration for hero-cop Dormer, and her dedication to finding out what really went down in Dormer’s fog bank chase all bring to light an uncomfortable truth: Dormer is lying about something. She just can’t tell what it is, exactly. And the closer she gets to his truth, the closer he gets to becoming the kind of monster he was created to destroy.
There are a lot of delicious moments in the movie, especially as Dormer and his criminal nemesis circle each other in a weird kind of cat-and-mouse symbiosis. Nightmute’s beautiful, daytime landscape suggest this is a place where no secrets stay hidden for long. And as Dormer goes longer and longer without sleep, aging before our very eyes, we see that his insomnia is just a symptom of a much bigger problem. The moment of truth, then, comes when he spills his guts to a friendly, but neutral observer to the proceedings. As he gives her the details of every secret that has darkened his soul, we realize he is not looking for absolution. He is looking for judgement, whatever that judgement may be. Because sometimes right and wrong aren’t about what the rules say. It’s about how bothered we are when we break them…and how bothered we aren’t when we break them again.