One of Christopher Nolan’s more under-seen and under-appreciated pictures, 2002’s hypnotic “Insomnia,” is a deft combination of murder mystery, crime procedural and searing character study that watches a sleep-deprived homicide detective as he probes a horrific murder case in Alaska, all while the endless reign of perpetual daylight threatens to disorient his senses beyond good reason. The film is a polished, spooky piece of craftsmanship and one of the highlights in the British director’s filmography.
And while the Al Pacino/Robin Williams-starring pic does showcase a number of Mr. Nolan’s preferred motifs, it’s easy to forget that his follow-up to “Memento” was actually a remake of a similarly austere picture from 1997. That film was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjærg and while the two pictures are obviously quite similar in tone and temperament, the original “Insomnia” is more authentically chilly (Skjoldbjærg is, after all, a Norseman), while Nolan’s version is more remote and also more beholden to Hollywood storytelling techniques. And now, for “Insomnia” fans new and old, a new video essay from Kevin B. Lee has just landed online, and it’s one that takes a good, hard look at what is perhaps the most iconic scene from both films.
I refer, of course, to the scene where our heroic, harried detective (played by Stellan Skarsgard in the original, and Pacino in Nolan’s version) chases a man he believes to be the killer he is after, all before losing him in a haze of ominous fog. In the video, Lee examines how simple cuts, point-of-view shots, dialogue (or lack thereof) and pointed use of music all play a part in developing the mood of these particular scenes as we see them side-by-side. Skjoldbjærg’s frames definitely seem more frigid, with the protagonist frequently isolated physically from those around him, while Nolan’s frames are busier and less impressionistic. Not surprisingly, Nolan’s version of the scene has more of an action-movie kick than the slow-building dread that permeates every scene of Skjoldbjærg’s’ original. Nolan’s occasionally irritating knack for unnecessary expository dialogue also gives his version distinction, for better or for worse, while his Norwegian counterpart relies more heavily on a sustained mood of terror and sly instances of visual storytelling to create friction in the narrative. It’s a fun watch for fans of either of the “Insomnia” films, and it’s also telling of how Nolan, studious man that he is, managed to helm a reverent, respectful remake of a slow-burning European thriller while simultaneously making a film that is very much his own.