Thursday, June 14, 2018

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: INSOMNIA

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who have two thumbs (combined) and love movies.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our Al Pacino series continues with arguably his best theatrical film work of the 2000s, Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. The movie is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller and tells the story of Los Angeles Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Detective Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), who are asked by a one-time colleague (Paul Dooley) to travel to a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a 17-year old girl. Complications arise as Dormer’s lauded arrest record is under suspicion back home by internal affairs and Eckhart is ready to cut a deal that would leave Dormer’s cases in question. Combine that stress with the never-ending Alaskan daylight and Dormer develops insomnia, which hinders his effectiveness and judgment solving the case. Also factoring into the story are a talented local detective named Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), who idolizes the Pacino character, and mysterious novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who had a curious relationship with the victim.

Insomnia is a movie I loved back in 2002 but have not revisited many times since. Maybe it’s just not an easy sit, or that there are more re-watchable Nolan movies. I still liked Insomnia a lot on this viewing, although maybe not as much as I used to (they are minor quibbles, like Nolan’s effortful storytelling style and Nicky Katt’s distractingly ironic performance). What stood out to me most positively on this viewing are the trio of lead performances that are all good in different ways (we’ll get into that later), the unique setting, and the unorthodox way the mystery unravels. I can’t think of another detective film where the investigating officer is basically in his own version of Strangers on a Train and the bad guy has leverage over the hero enough that the hero becomes the murderer’s accessory. It’s great drama. What did you think of the movie on this most recent viewing?
Rob: I came late to Insomnia, but it climbs higher in my Christopher Nolan ranking every time I watch it. I like this version of Nolan quite a bit; still cerebral, but not so damn arch and detached. The Nolanisms are there without being as distracting as they’d be in later efforts, and I love living in the film’s hazy watercolor world and following the little quirks and eccentricities throughout. While Dormer isn’t one of my favorite Pacino characters, he might be one of my favorite mid-career Pacino performances. There’s something about Nolan’s messy “in medias res” approach to editing (again, not distracting yet, but appropriate for this material) that speaks to many of Pacino’s acting strengths. He’s always in the middle or three or four thoughts at once, always looking off toward the edges of the frame for what’s coming next, and that makes Nolan a perfect match.I find myself wishing the pair had worked together more.

Insomnia was also part of Robin Williams’ post-Oscar rebrand, a period in which the comedian played tortured or idiosyncratic characters with darker edges. As opposed to something like One Hour Photo, I think Williams comes across quite well as local author Walter Finch. There’s a kind of childishness to his character -- the lonely self-assurance of a guy desperate for a connection -- that tips over into the necessary level of creepiness without becoming pitiful or exaggerated. I think we always sympathize with him, to a degree, because we’re watching Pacino toe the line between reality and hysteria that Finch has long-since crossed. Each side reflects the simultaneous exhaustion and restlessness of the other. I like these two together quite a bit.
Adam: One aspect I like about Pacino as Will Dormer is that he’s the guy Frank Serpico was fighting like crazy to avoid becoming (a compromised dirty cop), and both the performance and the script show how easily the line can be blurred. When Dormer tells the hotel manager (played by Maura Tierney in a performance that makes me miss when she was a character actor who popped up in movies) about the case where he did cross the line, it’s impossible for most people to not be absolutely in agreement that the end justified the means. That audience identification is rare in a compromised character and part of what makes Pacino and the film itself a cut above most thrillers. Not saying one of us is right and the other is wrong, but I read the Robin Williams performance differently than you. I don’t see him as childish as much as a creep who had no prior self-awareness and now is desperate to find someone to project on so he’s not the monster, but instead “we’re all monsters.”

Rob: I like that reading a lot, and I think both of our takes hit different shades of the performance.

Adam: Robin Williams’ death a few years ago put his career into focus for me, and I’m finding his work more impactful nowadays. He’s an actor I often enjoyed and even more often took for granted. The aspect of his performance I find most interesting in Insomnia is he doesn’t underline his villainy, but instead plays it in the same muted tone as a lot of his other dramatic work. That makes it so much more unsettling, like he has the same resolve and it’s just a matter of the scenario.
I like what you said about Pacino and Williams being so good together. Williams’ level of quiet is not usually the type of adversary Pacino has in his movies, and he registers down to match his co-star. Plus, it’s a rare movie where Hilary Swank is well-cast. She’s a bizarre case for me because I’m never thinking she’s a favorite actor of mine but when she’s good, she’s really good to the point where you can’t imagine any other actor playing the part better. I like her interplay with Pacino a lot because it gives the investigation more color. Insomnia shows you the grind of a murder case in a way a good cop television show can indulge, but a film thriller often breezes through. Looking back at the box office, I was surprised to see Insomnia was a hit (not a huge one, but it did well). It made me a bit sad that as recently as 2002 we had an adult drama with A-list stars in theaters opening on a holiday weekend and it grossed $20M in its first three days. This was before Nolan was a real brand, too, (he was the hot up-and-comer off the cult hit Memento when Insomnia opened). I can’t imagine a movie like this doing as well or even being a wide release in 2018. There should be movies like Insomnia out every couple of months at least. Is there a standout sequence for you in the movie? Do you have a preference of the first-pre-Williams half or the second half, where Williams’ character drives the action?

Rob: The Swank character is such an interesting take on the exposition mule, the character who only exists so that the lead can explain the plot out loud (you know, Batman’s Robin). I love the way the film spins that trope on its head and has her use Pacino’s wisdom against him in a way that’s entirely self-motivated and followed to a natural conclusion without being preachy. I also appreciated that she was looked down on more for being bookish and ambitious than for being a woman. Not that the latter isn’t a real concern, but it would feel a bit too obvious. This approach dovetails nicely with the rest of the material. I also like that Pacino wasn’t Shouty Al with her, that he held her at arm’s length while still respecting her as a cop. The “Don’t lose your way” moment is a such a beautiful catharsis.

While I think Williams is great, I’m obviously partial to the Pacino-heavy first half, the one where he’s calling the shots and making the moves. I was watching this while organizing my classroom today, and I realized I was talking to myself in Pacino’s voice after a while: “Oh, this goes over there? Okay!” “Hey, woah, come back here, desk chair!” “Three! Copies! Of this book! Are! MISSING!”

I think a lot of the police procedural stuff was, as you said, handled with more realism and weight than in most cop movies. I think The Wire taught me to appreciate the deliberate pace and moral shakiness of the work, and Insomnia handles it in a similarly elegant way. I also love how much the characters learn from newspaper headlines! We need to bring more of that back. As for favorite sequences, I think the midpoint chase and Dormer’s return to Finch’s home was both wonderful character work and some of the best and most coherent action Nolan has produced in his career.

Have you seen the original film? I haven’t, but I’m considering it after this rewatch. Also, what are your thoughts on how the insomnia motif plays into the greater scheme of things? Did you find it distracting or overwrought in any way? I thought it was handled very well.
Adam: I haven’t. I was in high school when it came out in 1997, so that wasn’t going to happen (I’ve expanded my horizons since to indie foreign cinema). I’m sort of glad I went into the Nolan remake fresh without having the original in the back of my mind. I heard the Norwegian Insomnia is darker than the American version. I’d like to say I’ll watch it as a curiosity, but who knows? If I’m in the mood for Insomnia it’s hard to beat a film with this cast. I’d be curious if any of our readers have seen both and can compare the two in terms of their overall preference. Leave a comment if you have a take!

I like the insomnia motifs because they feel organic and jetlag is a real bastard. The scenes such as when there’s a sudden cut and we see Pacino almost hit someone in the street with his car are good filmmaking choices to show he’s not as alert and he should be. I only found it distracting when Swank and Pacino trade the dialogue about how you can’t sleep because you want to crack the case (if you have nothing to hide) or you can’t sleep because you have a guilty conscience (if you did something wrong). Considering we know Pacino is suffering from lack of sleep and why he’s that way, it seems like unnecessary shading. But whatever, it’s like 30 seconds in an otherwise very good movie. BTW, I agree that I prefer the first half of this movie to the second (they’re both good). I like the interpersonal tension between Pacino and Donovan so much that I want more of it.

Want to hear an Al Pacino story I heard at Flashback Weekend from Katharine Isabelle about working with him?

Rob: Do you even have to ask? I’ll just quickly agree with you on the insomnia stuff and mention how much I appreciated that it was a background layer rather than an obnoxious plot mechanic. It’s a great example of how a story can incorporate a theme without the theme becoming the story.

Adam: Yes! I love how this movie always has two or three things happening at once.

Rob: Okay. Hit me with the Al story.
Adam: I was hoping to find a clip of it on YouTube, but no luck. So, it was a panel for Freddy vs. Jason and Katherine Isabelle (who plays the victim’s best friend in Insomnia) was one of the guests. One of the audience members asked her in the Q&A what Al Pacino was like to work with and she said this (from what I remember):

1. He was basically separated from everyone on set because he’s a legend.
2. They had to commute to the location where they were shooting a scene and drove together in the same car. She asked him after some silence what his children’s names were (Pacino and Beverly D’Angelo had just had twins at that point). He didn’t answer for a second and when he did he just said, “Al and Al.” Katharine Isabelle took this as a hint to not interact with Pacino. Then he turned around like a minute later and said, “I’M JUST FUCKIN’ WITH YOU! Want to see some pictures?”
3. At one point, Pacino asked Isabelle if she played poker. She didn’t really but did not want to say that to Pacino, so she lied and said yes. He told her to come to a room in the hotel for a friendly game. She said when she got there it was all movie stars, producers, business magnates, all who had suitcases full of chips and that she got cleaned out quickly.

Rob: I hope Isabelle dines out on that story for the rest of her life. Could you imagine trying to read Al’s moves across a poker table? “You got any THREES? I’m just fucking around. This is poker! GO FISH!”

Adam: When he folds he just goes limp and says, “Let me sleeeeep.” What are we reviewing next week?

Rob: Let’s swing for the fences with my all-time favorite baseball movie, A League of Their Own.

Adam: (Buffalo Bill voice) Would you trade me to Racine? I’d trade me to Racine? Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. i strongly recommend you guys watch the original movie, it does star Stellan Skarsgard after all.

    that being said, i've not watch any of the 2 movies in years. but i remember them both very well