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Christopher Nolan earned widespread acclaim for “Batman Begins,” his 2005 comic book drama that stripped the Dark Knight of Tim Burton’s Gothic overtones and Joel Schumacher’s camp in favor of Nolan’s preferred brand of psychological realism. Rarely before had a superhero film been subjected to the weight of an intimate, existential character drama. In burrowing deep into Bruce Wayne’s subconscious and exploring the trauma and fear that drives Batman, Nolan proved with great success how he could re-contextualize pre-existing material to fit the psychological quandaries that most interest him. The end result redefined comic book films, and yet what Nolan achieved in “Batman Begins” he had already perfected three years earlier in “Insomnia.”
Released theatrically in May 2002, “Insomnia” is Nolan’s remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name. The project marked Nolan’s first foray into studio filmmaking after the breakthrough success of his 2000 indie “Memento.” Warner Bros. executives were reluctant at first to meet with Nolan as they weren’t so eager to put a $45 million thriller in the hands of a first-time studio director. Steven Soderbergh was such a “Memento” fan that he forced Warner Bros. to take a meeting with Nolan. Little did anyone know at the time that the Warner Bros.-Nolan pairing would become one of the modern studio system’s most prolific partnerships.
In fact, “Insomnia” was such an assured studio debut for Nolan that it laid the groundwork for his studio blockbusters. The project set a precedent that Nolan could infuse pre-existing material with an original filmmaking voice, thus opening the door for his “Dark Knight” trilogy. Nolan takes the structure of Skjoldbjærg’s “Insomnia” and doubles down on the guilt-ridden existential downfall that plagues the protagonist, Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino), after he mistakingly shoots his partner dead. The murder becomes a psychological maze for Dormer, as his partner was intending to testify against him in an investigation into Dormer’s use of questionable evidence in the past. Dormer solves one problem and creates another by killing his partner, and the further down the rabbit hole he goes to catch the real killer he thought he was shooting the more he must confront his murderous action.
The thrill of “Insomnia” is not in the murder case at the center of the plot, but the self-inflicted mind game that puts Dormer through the moral wringer, which makes it a quintessential Nolan psychodrama. Nolan is playing with the same kind of existential crisis at the center of “Memento,” but he’s afforded the chance to dream even bigger thanks to a studio budget. He rises to the occasion with a stylistic confidence in the way he crafts moments of tension through cinematic visuals. Look no further than the inciting incident where Dormer shoots his partner. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister shoot through a sea of fog and utilize an icy blue color palette to give the moment a chilling, ghostlike atmosphere. The fog turns the characters into shapeshifting silhouettes, as the quick editing makes everyone’s identity a mystery.
The fog chase provided the first indication that Nolan had the confidence to inject traditional studio “action beats” with an elevated artistic flare. The second indication was the riveting cat-and-mouse chase later in “Insomnia” that finds Dormer running after the real killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams). The nearly four-minute set piece is a masterclass in tension as the chase starts indoors and extends through various outdoor spaces, from populated town streets to a floating log mill where Dormer nearly drowns. Nolan’s excels at sustaining tension through fluid movement: The scene isn’t a one-take and yet it seems like it moves in real time because of the precise way Nolan follows each of his characters. Clarity in movement has become the backbone of every Nolan action set piece (see the iconic Batmobile chase in “The Dark Knight” as the best example).
Among the major contemporary filmmakers working on their own terms, Nolan is the only one who has managed to retain that autonomy in the Hollywood studio system for 20 years and counting. Once Nolan teamed with Warner Bros. on “Insomnia” and proved he could succeed in taking an existential character drama at projecting it on a large cinematic scale, he never went back to making movies for anyone else. However, after “Insomnia,” each new project found him working on a bigger scale. While filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese have had to turn to streamers to secure gigantic budgets, Nolan marches on with a studio that trusts him enough to drop $225 million on an original story like “Tenet.” Nolan is now in a league of his own, and it’s “Insomnia” that set him on the path.
Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia” is now available to stream on HBO Max.