Monday, July 24, 2017

Insomnia

Christopher Nolan Week Part Four: Nolan's 2002 crime thriller starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank.

Of course, today's movie is none other than Insomnia, the story of a L.A. homicide detective (Pacino) who travels to Nightmute, Alaska to investigate a teen girl's death.  While staying in the strange town where the sun never sets, the detective is forced to confront his own demons if he ever wants to be able to get some quality sleep.

Image result for insomnia movie

This review necessitates spoilers in order to properly do the story justice, so I'm warning you now.  I will say (as I normally do) that this film was worth the time it took to watch and then some.  It is superbly well made and the acting blew me away.  If you've never seen Insomnia but you like any of the things on the following list, you need to make viewing this film a priority:


  1. Al Pacino
  2. Christopher Nolan
  3. crime
  4. drama
  5. thrillers
  6. Robin Williams
  7. Hilary Swank
  8. Alaska
  9. murder mysteries
  10. personal confrontations
  11. morally ambiguous actions
  12. the philosophy of truth
  13. gray areas of philosophy
  14. sketchy deals
  15. tape recorders
  16. logs
  17. gun terminology
  18. detectives
  19. small towns
  20. paperback crime novels

On to my thoughts!!!


I LOVE SYMBOLISMMMMM!

I don't know if you've caught on to this after two years of lit posts mostly about my love of symbolism, but I really love symbolism in films, literature, TV, EVERYTHING.  

I don't necessarily mind if symbolism takes on an "allegorical" type position (I'm not as strict about it as Tolkien, though I agree that it can be annoying *I'm looking at you, Narnia*).  I, for one, adore finding little hints in movies about themes, like in The Empire Strikes Back how the lighting on Luke's face is split in two during his confrontation with Vader to show that he is fighting an internal battle, 

Image result for lighting in the empire strikes back

or how every time someone is about to get knocked off in The Godfather (Pacinoooooo) an orange is mysteriously involved.

These little "Easter eggs" really excite me because once you sort of crack the code, you can start paying more attention to the lighting or to fruit placement, etc.

Alright I brought Tolkien into this so let me just clarify.  I don't like when everything is symbolic to exactly one thing and once you fit all the pieces together the actual story falls apart and becomes meaningless.  That's why I don't really like the Chronicles of Narnia: once you figure out it's all an analogy for the story of Christianity, the actual tale about lions and witches and stuff becomes completely useless.  It's a little anticlimactic, in my opinion.  But if a story is layered with various hints and motifs like The Godfather, for instance, it becomes very rich and makes me pay more attention.

If any of that seems unclear or like I'm disagreeing with Tolkien or contradicting myself let me know.  I'm typing super fast because I don't want to lose my train of thought and I don't have time to look back at that rambly paragraph I just wrote.

Image result for typing fast  gif

Okay, how does any of this symbolism love tie in with Insomnia?

Simply the name Insomnia is absolutely perfect.  Pacino as a cop has done some sketchy things in the past, like planting evidence to convince a jury that the guy Pacino thinks did it actually did do it or accidentally (...?) shooting his partner.  He feels guilty about these things deep down and he can't find any peace because of it--he can't sleep.

The setting of the story takes this one step further: the sun never sets in the town of Nightmute, Alaska because it's so far north.  I guess you could say that nighttime is turned off for the summer...it's muted.

Image result for nightmute alaska

Anyway the sun is always up in Nightmute, making it even harder for Pacino to get rest and he starts freaking out because it's driving him nuts.  You get all kinds of shots and flickers of images throughout the film because just like someone with actual insomnia, things are getting blurry and it's difficult to tell what is real.

The light of the sun represents the real, unadulterated truth which Pacino tries to hide from.  He's not trying to be a bad guy--his intentions were to get a criminal into prison--but he goes about trying to achieve his goals in immoral ways like planting fake evidence.  The ends don't justify the means for Pacino and the truth (like the sunlight) is unrelenting.

Finally at the end of the film as Pacino is dying, Hilary Swank's character reveals that she knows what Pacino did wrong but is willing to hide it in order to preserve Pacino's legacy and she knows that he tried to do what was right.  Pacino stops her from "forgetting" the truth in order to see reality and Pacino's character in a more palatable light.  He tells her not to lose her way and now that he knows Hilary Swank knows what he is done, he begs her to let him finally "rest" and he dies.

Image result for let me rest insomnia movie

In the end, when the truth is revealed, Pacino's insomnia stops and he can finally rest.

Pacino's inner battle with himself is not the only storyline that uses the sun and insomnia to represent guilt and trying to bury parts of the truth to create a reality you find more tasteful.

Robin Williams' character also did something he's not proud of (though his intentions were way less noble than Pacino's) and he tells Pacino that he once stayed awake for five days (I believe that is the correct number).  We can assume that this prolonged period of being awake is connected to feelings of guilt like Pacino experienced.  Toward the end of the movie Williams tells Pacino that he broke his record, further emphasizing just how guilty Pacino feels and how hard he has worked to evade the truth.

Image result for insomnia movie

Pacino talks to the lady who runs the hotel he is staying at, and she tells him that there are two types of people in Nightmute, Alaska: those who were born there, and those that went there to escape something else.  Pacino is there to escape the truth of what he did back in L.A. and what he accidentally did to his partner.  In the end there is no escaping the truth for Pacino however and his secrets are revealed.

I adore, adore, adore, adore, adore the symbolism about truth, guilt, ends vs. means, and justification in this movie.  I really want to re-watch it (but the library needs it's copy back *cries*).

In addition to the really compelling thematic depth and meaning, this film is wonderfully acted.  

I know it's been said a million times, but I had not really noticed how wonderful an actor Al Pacino is until I saw this movie.  In the Godfather movies I was so hopelessly confused about what was happening and who was who that I could never really appreciate his work.  In this movie it's wonderful to see him introduced as a strong investigator at the top of his line of work who is laid low, reduced to hiding things and running away; someone who is tortured with their past and simultaneously willing to reveal the truth in the end.  He is a very sympathetic character--I mean, who doesn't have something they would rather not want to own up to?

Also in a very strange way Pacino reminds me of my late grandma who was 100% Italian and had the same exact nose as Pacino does.  I kept noticing that for some reason.

Image result for insomnia movie

Hilary Swank is similarly very good in this movie.  Her character isn't necessarily the deepest or most complex ever, but her role is very important in keeping the audience aware of what's going on.

This is one of Robin Williams' more dramatic roles and he is indeed very creepy and unstable in the movie without being over the top.

So the acting is fantastic, the meaning is fantastic.  

But WAIT, there's more!

This movie has an ingenuous instance of non-linear storytelling.  This isn't Memento for sure, but it does have one scene in particular showed out of order that is masterful. 

At the beginning of the film, you see a man intentionally wiping blood on some clothes in a drawer.  Naturally, you assume that this is the criminal involved in the murder mystery that this movie is about and he must be planting some sort of decoy or something.

Later, at the very end of the movie, you learn that it was actually Al Pacino's character back in L.A. doing what he believed was what he had to do in order to get a criminal in jail despite a skeptical jury.  This incredible move made you really consider if Al Pacino's ends-justify-the-means argument was valid or if he was simply doing something criminal like you probably assumed at the beginning when first watching the shot.

Image result for insomnia movie wiping blood

Okay, acting, meaning, non-linear storytelling, and one more thing.

I'm not a fan of action, but this movie contained high-key the most suspenseful sequence in any movie I have ever seen.

My mouth was actually dropped, I was clutching my seat with white knuckles and leaning forward practically head-to-screen.

Pacino was running across logs on a river to catch Williams and as soon as he started to do it, good-ol'-northern-descended-from-lumberjacks-me said "oh no dear, you don't want to be running on those!

Image result for no samwise gif

I have actually be log-rolling once and it is impossible.  It's a technique that lumberjacks used to do where they would ride their logs down rivers to transport them easily.  In order to stay on a log you have to expertly roll on top of it.  If you slide underneath the log, you will be pinned under the water and thousands of tons of lumber will completely prevent you from ever resurfacing.

It's a very dangerous procedure, and it was so hard to do I only attempted for a couple minutes.  It's a game like in the gif below (you try to knock the other person off) but in real life that water would be full of logs and once you slip under you're a gonner.

Image result for logrolling gif

When I saw a pretty-old Pacino start running on those logs to catch Williams I knew it was a horrible idea.  I loved the character Pacino was portraying so much that I could barely watch as he scurried about a fourth of the way across the logs and fell under.

He was trying to get above water, but just like I said, the logs went right on top of him and there is no way to move thousand-pound tree trunks from underwater with your bare hands.

I couldn't watch!  

Image result for insomnia log scene

I didn't know if Pacino would live or die and giving the very abrupt way in which someone I thought would be a main character (Pacino's partner) died, I wasn't ruling out a Pacino death in that scene.

It seemed to stretch on for hours and hours and I couldn't handle it!

I have never been so nervous in a sequence in a movie as I was watching that log scene.

Masterful suspense, supreme acting, perfectly-executed and thought-provoking non-linear storyline, and deep questions raised make Insomnia a wonderfully made film that must be added to everyone's watched list.

Such a great film, one of the best of the crime thriller genre in my opinion and it will live forever in my mind (long after the public library has taken it away from me *a single tear*).


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