Insomnia (Movie)

by 4CS

The film was slow… with little drama.

What’s worse, you have seen all the clichés in this film many times over. Let’s review: our hero, played by Al Pacino, is a decorated cop whose rep is on the line. Swank plays the rookie who has “followed EVERY case…” of our hero. The cop who accidentally (?) kills his partner… our villain (Robin Williams), an omniscient philosopher (in this case novel writer), manipulating all involved with apparent ease. Of course, all this feels like it happens at the screenwriter’s “design”.

Stars will always impress their image on a film. They are what draw us to the theater. This image can be directed brilliantly, ignored, misinterpreted, etc. It is unfortunate that in this movie they lose their brilliance.

Robin William’s potential for evil is great, and yet was ignored in this film. Robin is one of Hollywood’s beloved and well-known comic geniuses that bring us incredible laughter. But it always seemed to come at the price of Robin’s own happiness. We have always felt an incredible gravity to Robin. His expressive eyes look as though he observes life with great depression. It is that natural desperation that was ignored in every scene. Rather, the creative choice for Robin was a coy, all knowing manipulator, in cold control of not only himself, but also Pacino, and the rest of the cast. Needless to say, Robin’s performance possessed no feeling of threat or desperation.

Pacino, also a Hollywood influence, is caught playing his same tired role. (In this film… very tired.) The question is… when is he going to give us, the audience, something that forces him to grow as an actor, and give something to a story that without him would be irreplaceable? Pacino, like other actors with their coveted brands, has his market. In this film, Pacino provides the performance we all come to expect, with no surprises.

Hillary Swank’s character suffered the most unfortunate case of stereotype and cliché. Too many times the Rookie partners with their personal hero, that has thoroughly studied every one of their cases, only then to discover the clue that dissolves that perfect hero, along with her innocence, and learns that her hero screws up, bleeds, and ultimately dies… Swank should have walked away from this tired cliché role, however tempting it may have been to star along side Pacino and Robin. Even these icons can drown in their own image that attracts so many loyal fans to the theaters. Icons are not impervious to poor scripting and weak direction.

This brings us to the real issue of the film… the director.

Inexperience and a limited sensitivity to the story, character and actors contributed to Insomnia’s lethargic blandness. With two of Hollywood’s well-known actors, Chris Nolan’s possessed a wonderful opportunity for misdirection. An opportunity that if tapped, would have given a performance the audience wouldn’t have predicted. Rather, Nolan depended on the actor’s brand due to his immaturity as a sophisticated and sensitive storyteller.

Inexperience and immaturity has a habit of calling attention to itself. When style serves a story, the audience is given a wondrous experience complete with texture, vision, and colour all driven by culture. Nolan’s urge to show a bleeding cloth flashback several times in the film breaks the impact of the story, making the audience conscious that a director is indeed behind the camera. An experienced Director always chooses a style that serves the film, not himself.

No matter how talented the Director is, if the script is weak, you can tell the actors are giving us a “stretch”. There is nothing more depressing, on screen, when you can feel an actor stretch, and everyone seeing that even the actor is aware of this weakness.

The script is always where the problems start.

Drama is the driving force of a story well told. It pits us against odds that, by its very nature, can defeat us. It’s a tension that builds to an undeniable inevitability with an ending, that after it’s told, we could imagine no other. Insomnia in several instances of scene and character, is robbed of any real drama.

For characters to live in drama, it must feel, and be real conflict. To give a character omniscience siphons the tension, and thusly weakens the drama for the conflict thirsting audience. Robin’s character was given this omniscience, creating a painful boredom that was unfolding slowly on screen. Even Robin’s witty tension breaking quips could only buy a hollow chuckle. To manipulate the remaining cast, this was what he knew:

1. Pacino’s inquisition in California
2. Pacino’s partners was going to strike a deal with the DEA
3. An accurate judgment of how “useless” the local cops are
4. Knowing Pacino’s every move, (finding the gun he planted)
5. Heard the dying words of Pacino’s partner
6. That the victims boyfriend was a plausible suspect
7. Swank’s character discovered he was guilty

Knowing any one of these facts wouldn’t have broken the drama, but knowing all of these facts turned Robin’s character into Pacino’s droning and nagging consciousness or conscious-self. The writer then took the next step to have Robin repeating that he could “write” an ending everyone in the small town would “buy”. Images of Murder She Wrote star Angela Lansbury came to mind. For Robin’s character, omniscience/presence didn’t lend well for any real drama.

At one point, he is convincing Pacino to cover it all up, and every word that was scripted for Robin was an EXACT thought/concern for Pacino’s character. There was no “uncertainty”, because for what felt like a paranormal reason, Robin knew everything knowable.

The was also no real indication Robin was an insomniac or had suffered any kind of insomnia. More so, you feel as though he slept wonderfully, possibly suggesting that he had no moral issue with his crime. But if that is true, and he saw his action clearly, then why have “insomnia” as a theme at all when it only becomes trivialized by Robin’s “all awareness“.

As for Pacino, you watch the entire film feeling like he is nothing more than a tired ping-pong ball, bouncing from happenstance to screenwriter’s design. His character is so tired, that it nearly comes off as lethargy, and it has the entire theater wanting to shake him awake.

While dying, Pacino tells Swank that he wasn’t sure if he meant to kill his partner anymore. When this line was delivered, it made the viewer turn away, uncomfortable in what felt like delusional ramblings of an insomniac. Watching this scene unfold, you weren’t sure if he was having a character revelation, delusion from sleep deprivation, or a weak attempt at remorse/guilt, and therefore the Pacino’s character arch died with him proving little meaning.

But how does Swank find out about the detective’s skeletons? Unfortunately, the answers are given to her by Pacino telling Swank not to overlook any detail, no matter how small they are, and to make sure all your facts are right. This of course, lead her to an ironic discovery of Pacino’s guilt with little to no feeling of revelation, and hence weakened the sense of disappointment she would find for her hero.

With all the previous scenes setting up Pacino’s finale, Swank is convinced he didn’t kill his partner intentionally for reasons that are not clearly explained. As she’s about to throw away the evidence to protect him from further inquisition, Pacino says, in his final gasp, “Don’t… don’t lose your way…” and then dies, his eyes partly open, to symbolize that even in death he cannot sleep. This ploy fell exceptionally flat, and you knew as well as the actor does that he was “stretching”.

If you ever suffered from Insomnia, I would prescribe this film. You’ll be as tired as Pacino looks, if you make it to the credits. But if you want to see it, my recommendation is to rent. I strongly suggest not spending your money in the theatre.

  • Insomnia (Movie)
  • by 4CS
  • Published on July 1st, 2002
Warner Brothers
Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank
May 2002

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