Insomnia is Christopher Nolan’s most missed movie

Christopher Nolan is one of the most widely recognized and respected directors working today, and is virtually the only director who can get studio funding for a completely original story idea. This seems to be because Nolan has proven time and again that regardless of the type of story he’s working with, he has a distinctive style that captivates the audience’s imagination through his ability to do world-class action sequences and summer blockbusters. Creating that is both entertaining and fascinating, working with mind-boggling ideas about space, time and dreams that keep the viewer thinking about the film long after the film is over. This applies to his early work on a smaller budget in reminder and insomnia to his later high-octane offers like beginning and principle. No matter what type of film he’s making, audiences will see him because they know a compelling story is waiting for them.


Despite the well-deserved praise, Nolan’s films have often been criticized for their weaknesses as well as for their strengths. While the director has an eye for breathtaking visuals and sequences, his films are often confronted for their lack of character development, the protagonists are no longer mentioned as casually and focus more on the plot than the characters. It’s seen as a consistent misstep in many of his films (though not all). However, what is often overlooked in these reviews of Nolan’s characters is his most overlooked film and greatest achievement in character drama: insomnia.

Insomnia is a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name and follows Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a distinguished LA police officer investigating the murder of a small town high school girl in Alaska. As the story unfolds, the layers around Dormer’s character slowly begin to unfold, and what began as a confident and quick investigation becomes a story of deeper and deeper soul searching behind the rapidly deteriorating shell of Dormer’s outer personality.

Insomnia Is Christopher Nolan's Most Missed Movie

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its restraint. There are no chases or massive set-piece sequences, but rather a slow progression and uncovering of the case, along with the unveiling of the dark secrets of Dormer’s past. What the audience initially sees as tough, experienced, and hardened cops is gradually giving way to a stronger premonition that something terrible is hidden in its past.

That particular unknown past regarding the “Dobbs Case” eventually adds to the drama of the film as Dormer’s partner confesses that he is about to strike a deal with an internal investigation and provide information to the investigator. But it is only when Dormer later accidentally shoots and kills his partner during a chase in the fog that he begins to question his own intentions. Although he insists it was an accident, his dying partner is convinced that Dormer wanted to kill him to join an open ending, and his final words haunt Dormer throughout the film until he wonders if he actually did it wanted to do.

As his present dissolves and the past catches up with him, Dormer cannot sleep, partly because of Alaska’s eternal daylight and partly because of his troubled conscience; its exhaustion and the tragedy of the story increase proportionally as the film progresses. To all of his previous cases from being solved and criminals released, he attributes the murder of his partner to the suspect, and the film subtly reveals Dormer’s familiarity with illegally sneaking behind the back of the investigation. That, it turns out, is his dirty secret. He enclosed evidence in a previous case to arrest a man who was guilty of sin but did not leave enough evidence to convict.

The intriguing character drama drives the entire plot, not just because of Pacino’s role as a dormer, but because of Robin Williams“Terrifyingly sinister turn as Walter Finch, the murderer in Dormer’s investigation. As the only one witnessing Dormer shoot his partner, Finch has an advantage that he uses as leverage against Dormer to work with him to undermine the investigation. The film is thus entering extremely rare terrain: it produces a character drama in which the hero and villain work together towards a common goal, thereby the complexity of the character by suggesting how easily Dormer can play the role of. the villain himself can hatch.

Insomnia-Pacino-Williams - Insomnia Is Christopher Nolan's Most Missed MovieImage via Warner Bros.

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The other side of Dormer’s character also develops in response to a young officer who idolizes his job and wants to be just like him: Hilary Swankis Ellie Burr. He encourages their development and support in the case, but finds himself torn between these two extremes: Burr, who is the kind of officer he once was, and Finch, who embodies the direction he’s headed. Dormer himself cannot decide which of the two he is ultimately, because with Finch he tries to undermine the investigation and with Burr he actually points them in the right direction, as if he wanted to be caught for what he did. The one scene in the film where these three characters chat is a masterful example of this dynamic. Dormer vacillates between the two extremes, once he helps Finch, once he is disgusted by him and tries to judge him. Finch and Burr play as contradicting slides of his character, and part of the great tension in the film shown in Dormer’s own drama is his profound uncertainty as to which of the two he will ultimately be.

The final element that creates excellent character drama is the setting of the tough moral stakes at the end of the film. At the climax, Dormer has two options: release Finch and all stands, all the criminals he catches stay in jail, or catch Finch and it all collapses – Dormer himself is charged and his only case of evidence is used to use them all clear up his previous cases. Even Burr herself is drawn into this dilemma as she has to decide whether to continue the investigation and blame Dormer or let him go and forget about her moral responsibilities. The final scene between Burr and Dormer crystallizes this dilemma – at the last moment Burr prepares to throw away the only piece of evidence that links Dormer to the crime, and Dormer stops her by telling her, “Lose not you! . “

Insomnia is a low-key film that takes place in a very narrow space with no fancy visual pyrotechnics. In spite of all this, and perhaps precisely because of it, it is an excellent film, the tension and plot of which is almost exclusively drawn from the screws of the moral dilemmas in the character drama. While some of Nolan’s films have struggled with persuasive character development, Insomnia is the most delicate, nuanced, and profound character direction that has appeared in his films.

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About the author

Patrick Lyon
(2 articles published)

I’m Patrick Lyon and I write for Collider. I also teach Latin and literature at the high school level and have been a lifelong fan of Tolkien’s works.

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