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Blu-ray Review: Insomnia (2002)

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Christopher Nolan is one of the hottest names in Hollywood after he revitalized the Batman franchise and orchestrated the stunning Dark Knight. Such a feat shouldn’t be surprising to those who’ve seen Nolan’s earlier work like Memento and Insomnia, the remake of a 1997 Norweigan thriller. Insomnia has now made its way onto Blu-ray for your viewing pleasure. Is it worth picking up again?

Insomnia stars a grizzled Al Pacino as a veteran LA cop, Hillary Swank as a young, naive, small-town Alaskan cop, and Robin Williams as an author in a decidedly darker and creepier role than we are accustomed to. Pacino and his partner, amidst an internal affairs investigation, are sent to the small Alaskan town of Nightmute to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. Early on it’s evident that the Nightmute detectives are way out of their depth and Pacino and his partner’s help is sorely needed.

As the investigation continues the town takes its toll on Pacino, both mentally and physically, as Nightmute is illuminated by continual sunlight day and night. As Pacino develops into an insomniac they finally catch a break in the case. Unfortunately the lucky break isn’t so lucky for Pacino and an extremely tense game of cat and mouse develops between Pacino and Williams as they both know a secret about each other linking their futures. As the tension builds Pacino loses any chance of sleeping in Nightmute.

The film has a cracking story and the idea of outsiders coming into a small town where the sun never goes down and not realising the way that it can screw with their mind and body is thoroughly enjoyable and quite an interesting scenario. Nolan also manages to turn the scrutinizing moral eye away from the bad guy at times and onto Pacino. It forces the viewer to see Pacino in a different light and scrutinize his actions more than one normally would.

Both the effect of the insomnia and the scrutiny of Pacino’s character come from Nolan’s filmmaking techniques. The film is littered with random flashes of an image and events from the film, which Pacino’s character is seeing or imagining. This helps demonstrate the effect that six nights without sleep has had on him. As events become clearer or murkier in his mind the audience is also made aware of this. For instance the shooting incident is first remembered as a very misty, clouded, and accidental encounter but as the film develops and doubts emerge, the incident becomes clearer and less of an accident. These elements, the change of view and the mental and physical effects the town had, help to make Insomnia stand out as not just another cop/murder film but as an interesting psychological thriller. It’s not a perfect film — Swank’s is a bit of a nothing character while the log chase scene seems really out of place — but its still thoroughly enjoyable.

Pacino and Williams are brilliant and the best bits of the film are their conversations. They’re just filled with so much tension as they share this secret, uneasy association and you’re always waiting for something to break the status quo. Williams steals the show because he’s just so creepy and freaky your skin crawls. Comedians seem to play serious roles quite well, probably because it is such an unexpected and sometimes shocking viewing experience. Throughout the film Williams produces some looks that chill you to the bone; seeing him commit an act of violence is shocking while seeing him reason and explain that he didn’t murder the girl makes your skin crawl because, like Pacino can, the audience can tell he’s pure evil. Those scenes are some of the most unnerving in the whole film. He seems so calm as he’s speaking and almost sad that it happened yet something about the way he portrays the character means you could never really trust him and get rid of that uneasy feeling. 

The film is presented in 2.40:1 1080p HD. The transfer is of a high quality with the image being presented clearly and crisply. Colors are clear without any noticeable deficiencies and things like the white of the Alaskan ice really stand out although not so clear as to look fake as there is a lot of shadow to darken the colors. The combination of the pristine image quality and the great cinematography of the Alaskan wilderness make Insomnia a great viewing experience in HD. While the picture is sharp and clear for the most part the scenes that take place in thick fog are benefited by some grain and haze. This helps to underline the feeling of uncertainty in the scene and it just wouldn’t have been right to see clearly rendered fog on the screen.

The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. For the most part the film focuses on the front end, which is to be expected from a dialogue-heavy crime thriller. What the transfer does really well though is occasionally hit you with full surround sound for a gunshot or a truck horn. You almost become lulled into these silences or quiet moments and then the audio really comes alive and shocks you back to attention. Gunshots also sound authentic and really pack a punch. The film also has a few moments that work your sub, like the plane roaring across the screen but its use is limited and carefully chosen. The dialogue is clear and easily audible although at times it does sound like Pacino is going around shouting at everyone and it’s not a pleasant experience but as he gets tired his voice drops, thankfully.

The Blu-ray comes with a collection of special features including additional scenes, two commentaries with Nolan, Swank, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and others and four featurettes including a making of, a conversation between Nolan and Pacino, a feature on the cinematography and production design, and a feature on insomnia. It’s a shame that there aren’t any new special features but it means that DVD buyers aren’t missing out on anything either.

Insomnia is a great film and further proof that Christopher Nolan should be appreciated for his work outside of The Dark Knight and that Robin Williams should be appreciated for his work outside of comedy. With a terrific story, some great acting, and nice touches by the director it’s a great, albeit a creepy, viewing experience, which is enhanced by an audio and image transfer that is of the highest quality.

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About Troy Mayes

  • Troy,

    This is one of my all-time favourite psychological thrillers! Nolan is truly a master.

    Al and Robin gave terrific performances. Lovely review.