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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Insomnia
Warner Bros. // R // October 15, 2002
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted October 12, 2002 | E-mail the Author
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Movie:

Al Pacino, certainly one of the finest actors working, only seems to be improving as the years pass. Although Pacino has been wonderfully entertaining playing characters flying into a rage, 2002 has given the actor a chance for more subtler, dynamic performances. Although the actor's marvelous performance in Andrew Niccol's "S1m0ne" wasn't seen by many, his work in Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" is easily one of his best recent efforts. In playing a tired, worn-down character, Pacino's detective Will Dormer may be troubled and suffering from exhaustion, but the actor plays scenes with his eyes and gestures, still commanding the screen just as strongly - only in a quieter fashion.

"Insomnia", director Christopher Nolan's third feature (after "Following" and "Memento"), is a remake of a smaller 1997 Norwegian film, which was directed by Erik Skjoldbærg and featured "Good Will Hunting" actor Stellan Skarsgård in the lead. In this remake, Pacino plays Will Dormer, a Los Angeles police detective who has been sent up to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska to solve the murder of a high school girl. He is sent up to the frozen North by the police force, who are doing their own internal investigation into his work. He is accompanied by partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), who may know and be willing to tell about what the investigators are looking for. They're joined by a local police officer, Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), who has done her research, but has little experience.

"Insomnia" is one of those films that is difficult to explain without giving away facts that are essential to potential enjoyment of the film, so I'll stop before I go any further with the plot details. I have not seen the original film, although this remake does reportedly follow the first film fairly closely. There are twists throughout the film that I found unpredictable and, while the film eventually becomes a cat-and-mouse psychological thriller, Nolan keeps the film moving, taut and intense.

As terrific as the performances are, Nolan and "Memento" cinematographer manage to make the surrounding area a character in itself. Haunting, chilly and eerily beautiful, the director and his crew have done wonders with the land of the midnight sun, creating an almost otherworldly atmosphere. Nolan also holds the tone marvelously, creating a dark thriller that never starts to drag or become overly moody. While certainly more straightforward than "Memento" was, Nolan clearly shows he's capable of reigning in a star-heavy cast and holding a large budget together. Other "Memento" crew members also lend their talents again here: David Julyan's brilliant score often accompanies the chilly scenery wonderfully, adding to the emotion of a scene, but never underlining it. While the music recalls the "Memento" score occasionally, the similar tones sound fresh here. "Memento" editor Dody Dorn does fine work here, as well.

As I mentioned prior, Pacino's performance is a masterful, playing the character's guilt, fear, anger and exhaustion superbly. Williams, clearly looking to erase "Patch Adams" from the nation's memory, offers a very good performance that has the actor convincingly playing dark. Hillary Swank offers a solid performance, too, giving the character depth and intelligence. Maura Tierney ("E.R.", "Scotland, PA") and others offer strong support.

While clearly a big-budget thriller, "Insomnia" remains an old-fashioned and intelligent piece that I found moved quickly and remained terrifically involving. Those expecting another "Memento" may be disapointed, but this is still very fine work, as well, and one of the year's best.


VIDEO: Warner Brothers presents "Insomnia" is 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on this release. The combination of talented cinematographer Wally Pfister and the striking Canadian locations make for some stunning imagery. While Showtime certainly did not do justice to Pfister's work on their DVD of "Scotland, PA" (due out this month, too), Warner Brothers has thankfully prepared a first-class transfer for this release. Sharpness and detail are certainly top-notch, as fine details are apparent throughout the picture.

To get picky, there are a few minor faults here: a slight little touch of edge enhancement, a speck or two on the print, but other than those stray faults, there's nothing of real concern here. No pixelation or any other problems arise throughout. The film's muted color palette looked natural and crisply rendered, with no smearing or other faults. A stellar transfer; while not quite reference quality, it's still pretty excellent.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is not quite as interesting. Although the filmmakers have created terrific atmosphere with the film's imagery, they sort of miss an opportunity to create an even stronger involvement via the soundtrack. Surrounds are used only rarely for a few only mildly effective sound effects. The rear speakers also provide occasional reinforcement for the score, but the majority of the soundtrack is clearly rooted in the front speakers. Audio quality is perfectly acceptable, with clear dialogue and the occasional presence of decent low bass.

MENUS: Warner Brothers provides animated main and sub-menus that fit the tone of the film quite well.


Commentaries: Two commentaries are included: one is by director Christopher Nolan, while the other is a scene-specific affair with actress Hillary Swank, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Dody Dorn, cinematographer Wally Pfister and screenwriter Hillary Seitz. The commentary from director Nolan is highly unusual (although unusual is somewhat expected from Nolan). Instead of a normal commentary, this track actually has Nolan discussing scenes in the order they were filmed. This feature manages to work pretty wonderfully, as not only is it smoothly presented, it gives the director additional layers of potential discussion. Overall, this commentary is decidedly a better one than Nolan's "Memento" track. While that track was informative but dry, the director provides a bit more energetic overview of this production. A mixture of technical and general production issues, Nolan provides a clear outline of what it was like to work with such an exceptional cast after working on two smaller films, his way of going about filming on a daily basis, some obstacles and technical tidbits. It's a superb track and the neat way its presented (which also includes a note at the bottom of the screen as to what day (day 1,2, etc.) of shooting it was) makes it even better. The second track, while unfortunately not a full-length one, does allow the participants to discuss their role in the selected scenes.

A Conversation With Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino: This is a 14-minute featurette that has Nolan and Pacino sitting down for an "unscripted" conversation. The cameras roll, and both director and star launch into a fascinating (if a bit hard to hear, as the sound isn't great) discussion of filmmaking and stories from both their careers.

In The Fog: This section provides two featurettes: one focusing on the work of cinematographer Wally Pfisfer and the other one of production designer Nathan Crowley. Both are fairly basic overviews, but do provide a nice look at the role of both crew members and how they accomplished what they did.

Deleted Scenes: Nolan provides optional commentary for a deleted scene: one with Pacino and Tierney.

Also: Rounding out the disc are: "Day For Night", a standard promotional featurette; a still gallery; trailer; cast/crew bios; "Eyes Wide Open", a featurette about real-life insomniacs and basic DVD-ROM weblinks.

Final Thoughts: Lead by a fantastic performance from Al Pacino, Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" is an excellent thriller and a solid follow-up after the director's "Memento". Warner Brothers provides a fine DVD for the film, with excellent presentation quality and lots of insightful and informative supplements. Recommended.

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