Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Christopher Nolan Blogothon Day 3: Insomnia

The first film for a major studio is a hurdle that has left many a promising young filmmaker broken and bloody at its base. There are bodies among that foundation, and the pressure of that first film with money, and studio executives have destroyed more promising talents then drugs, alcohol, and money combined.

Navigating the waters of a major studio picture for a first timer can make the Strait of Messina look easy to navigate (Lit Nerd humor… so sorry). You have to keep your idenity and still prove you can play ball. Turn in a saleable product that’s not just rote boilerplate. Engage yourself with material you didn’t develop. Prove you’re enough of a professional to make something for hire. And yet prove you’re enough of an artist so it doesn’t look as if you did.

The most shocking thing about Insomnia is how much of a piece it looks with his other work. Its a remake of someone else’s work, true. And as a star vehicle made from a respected foreign source, its pretty much the definition of a safe bet. So some might take my claims as just auteurist wankery. But Insomnia remains instep with every aspect of Nolan’s signature that we’ve been discussing. And if nothing else, the material turns out to be wildly suited to Nolan’s particular talents.

Briefly like all Nolan protagonists Will Dormer, a cop investigating the murder of a yong girl in Alaska, in is unable to move on from, in this case two central events. The first the planting of evidence which is fueling a Internal Affairs investigation against him back on the main land. The second, comes when he first shoots then covers up the death of his partner. Who Dormer just happened to have learned was cooperating with said Internal Affairs investigation. Was the shooting accidental? Not even Dormer seems to be sure, though Nolan certainly gives him more of the benefit of the doubt then the Swedish version does. The only person who does seem sure, is the murderer who Dormer is hunting, and witness Dormer kill his partner.

The Killer is of course Robin Williams, who burns up so much good will with all the “Old Dogs” he stars in, that when he does turn in a genuinely good performance, he tends to be underrated. You can see Nolan beginning to play with some of the ideas he brought to his take on the Joker. As Dormer remarks during his the autopsy scene, Williams has “crossed the line and didn’t even blink.” He’s passed beyond not beyond, as the old cliché goes “good and evil” but pettiness. To quote another Nietzchian chestnut, he’s a man who the abyss has stared back at. All he lacks is the Mephistolian swagger that Ledger gave the Joker. Williams and Nolan paint him as a pathetic little man. Who just happens to have an actual monster just under the skin.

And once again, Nolan brings the theme of codependency between the two. While the symbiosis between Cobb and The Young Man, in Following, and Teddy and Leonard in Memento, was at least partially consensual. Granted with one half of the partnership holding much more information then the other. The “partnership” in Insomnia is one in which the two parties are continuously trying to turn the tables on one another. The mystery in Insomnia is solved less then halfway through the film. The question the film then poses is not so much “Who Done It?” but “Who can live with it?”

And to Nolan’s credit, he leaves it up in the air as long as he can.

Though not as personal of a film as Memento, Insomnia does act as a showcase for Nolan’s strengths. As in all of his films he comes up with some arresting imagery. Most startling the reoccurring motif of the juxtaposition of an extreme close up of a piece of fabric being stained with blood, and the wide open vistas of the Alaskan wilderness. His work as a stylist comes through in more subtle ways as well. The way he heightens the Foley and the lighting, making everything more abrasive, but just this side of noticeable, in all but a few key scenes. It also shows Nolan’s gift for geography, used best during a log chase, that proved well before The Dark Knight that Nolan could direct a hell of an action scene.

Also showcased is Nolan’s underrated eye for casting. There is the coaxing of the aforementioned great performance by Robin Williams. But also the use of the great Nicky Katt, the underused Maura Tierney, as well as one of the few Hillary Swank performances that doesn’t totally miscast or misuse her. Harnessing her boyish “Golly Shucks” persona better then just about anyone not named Clint Eastwood or Kimberly Swank.

Standing in the center of all of this is Al Pacinio. Who I have somewhat conspicuously not mentioned much. This is, shall we say, the least embarrassing of Pacino’s performances once the “Hoohah’s” really sunk their teeth into him. Which is yes I know just about the very definition of faint praise. Still in all fairness there are couple of scenes where he absolutely brings it and only one, where he takes a girl he’s questioning on a joyride, where he actually embarrasses himself.

Insomnia has plenty of detractors, some who accuse it of watering down its harsh source material (some what valid), acting as a star vehicle (less valid) and squandering Nolan’s talents (invalid).

Still for all its flaws, Insomnia marked Nolan as someone all too rare. A filmmaker fully capable of making a film worthy of serious consideration inside the Hollywood studio system.


Neil Fulwood said...

If 'Insomnia' can be considered a disappointment, that's only because it came after 'Memento'. Imagine the critical plaudits had it been Nolan's follow-up to 'Following'.

You're right, there are problems: Pacino was just into that downhill phase where he was happy to chew the scenery and take the money and not do much else, and unfortunately that does show through in places. Still, it says something for Nolan's facility with actors that he manages to rein Pacino in for much of the film.

His facility with actors (as well as his knack for quirky casting) is wondrously confirmed in Robin Williams' performance. Williams makes this film, as does - to a slightly lesser degree - Hilary Swank.

Great article, Bryce - a perceptive analysis of probably the least heralded work on Nolan's CV. Also, congratulations on the blogathon so far - there's been a consistent amount of contributions per day, all of a commendably high quality.

Bryce Wilson said...

Many thanks Neil.

Pacino's not bad, he's just not engaged. Its as if his performance is made up of outtakes of Heat.