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Insomnia (Christopher Nolan) 2002 / Insomnia (Erik Skjoldbjaerg) 1997


    Christopher Nolan, who showed a good deal of potential in his breakthrough film Memento, follows up that achievement with Insomnia, a dumbing-down of a foreign film which wasn’t that brilliant too begin with. The original, made in 1997, was the debut feature of Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjaerg, and featured at its center an accomplished performance by Stellan Skarsgård. In the Americanization, Al Pacino, usually an equally capable actor, fills the role, but the results are something less than satisfying. Both films tell the story of a displaced police detective that travels to the land of the midnight sun (Norway in the Euro version, Alaska in the U.S. one) to track a killer while gradually sliding into a form of madness induced by sleep-depravation and guilty stress. Skarsgård’s performance works because the script of the original supports it, even when things get ugly. Even though the remake tells the exact same story, nearly scene for scene, a few small changes to a few key scenes have a huge impact on our perception of the lead and the overall tone of the film.


    It’s not particularly surprising, but the Hollywood remake feels oddly castrated when compared to the original. The police detective in the original is a sleazy character, but an interesting one. His slide into criminality is fascinating because it relies only a series of small transgressions that snowball into larger ones, and when we consider the nature of the crime that he’s investigating, the distinction between cop and criminal becomes awfully blurry. Pacino’s portrayal allows the audience to be much more sympathetic, and the movie is greatly diminished as a result. Most of his character’s madness seems to lie in Nolan’s editing rhythms and the great reaction shots of Hilary Swank’s character, instead of within his own performance. The few chase scenes that are in the movies are definitely presented in a more exciting fashion in the remake, but Insomnia shouldn’t be looked at as a movie about exciting chase scenes. It’s a movie about a frightening downward spiral… not one about a frightening criminal. Once Pacino’s police detective is turned into an action hero that we’re supposed to root for, he stops being a monster that we should be afraid of becoming.


    As far as police procedurals go, either version of Insomnia is slightly above average. The movies don’t rely on the mystery of whodunit, but instead try to understand something about the nature of the criminal mind. Since Nolan opts to make his protagonist nicer in the remake, he defeats much of his purpose, resulting in a movie that seems a bit out to lunch. Neither film is what I’d call entertaining, so most of the pleasures that lie in them for the audience lie in the subtleties of the acting and direction. Skarsgård’s lead performance towers over Pacino’s, so it’s not hard to recommend the original over the remake, especially since the technical aspects of the newer version aren’t in any way outstanding. Hilary Swank is the only Oscar-winner in the remake’s cast (which also includes an embarrassing turn from Robin Williams) that seems to deserve her award. She turns a minor role as a rookie cop into the heart of the picture. That the Norwegian version of the movie didn’t feel it necessary to have a heart at all made more sense, though.


Insomnia (1997) - * * *

Insomnia (2002) – * * 


Jeremy Heilman