How do you follow a film as remarkable as 2000's Memento? If you're writer-director Christopher Nolan, you take a leap of faith. Entering into the $50 million budget range, the English-American director has crafted a beguiling Hollywood thriller that not only satisfies commercial concerns but furthers Nolan's exploration of themes first studied in his debut 1998's Following and elaborately staged in Memento.
Eliciting classy performances from the principal players, Nolan adapts to not only the pressures of studio filmmaking but to working from another's script - in this case, one written by debut scribe Hillary Seitz, based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name (scripted by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg).
Having transferred the action to Alaska, Nolan retains the original film's conceit of a cop - in this case Will Dormer (Pacino) - caused sleepless nights by the Midnight Sun, as well as the guilt from his accidental or otherwise murder of his colleague Hap Eckhart (Donovan), here set during a stunning sequence enshrouded in fog.
Pacino's craggy face is suited for expressing insomnia, and his accomplished, nuanced performance is his best work for years. Swank, as the keen local rookie cop Ellie Burr, makes the best of a thankless role, while Williams - exposed quickly as the teenage girl's killer, Walter Finch - is a revelation, giving an understated, creepy turn.
On first look, Insomnia appears as traditional as Memento was radical. Nolan's first linear narrative (albeit one written by Seitz), it is more gentle on the audience than his previous efforts. Yet, on closer inspection, the films cross wires. Both deal with a man whose physical state (be it sleep-deprivation or memory loss) is an expression of his mental anguish (in both cases, guilt). Again, Nolan appears interested in rescuing a genre - not the revenge thriller this time, but the cop movie - from the clichés that filmmakers so often resort to. As for Nolan's collaborators, David Julyan's scratchy electronic score recalls his work for Memento, as does Wally Pfister's claustrophobic photography and Dody Dorn's sleek editing.