Control, focal slippage, and the open world malaise of Christopher Nolan’s accidental poem, Insomnia


Insomnia (2002)
Dir. Christopher Nolan

At the heart of every criticism of Nolan is that through the disastrous formal and thematic noise (which could/should offer tacky thrills and creative interpretations), he is boring. It should come as no surprise that his least thematically loaded works are also his tidiest, but it is curious that his most openly boring one, Insomnia, is his second most watchable in practice. This is not for any professional humility on his part, but a sort of misjudged adherence to crime genre beats. It is the film that someone makes before embarking on something grandiose and potentially ruinous, or following a creative disaster so as to exhibit an enduring, even hardened sense of authorial control back on dry land. The stripped-back approach to text/subtext has been and will continue to be used as a format for artists to work out stylistic and practical issues, but Insomnia is brazenly styleless, unadventurous, nondescript. Contrary to the assumptions of auteurism, Insomnia is so openly disinterested in doing or being anything that it is the director’s only emotionally resonant mood-piece.

Every step of the way it wants to be about a detective who is ‘not so different’ from the killer, being slowly cornered by his guilt and a spirited rookie who comes to see through his shit. It is made to be a non-thing but for Nolan this is still the only thing, which puts him at odds with Pfister’s migraine atmospherics and the myriad other small indeterminate things that elude him. This is not a case of dramatic grappling, but of worn frustration, a construction mirroring Dormer and Finch’s condition. The opening credits set text over the blinding white of snowy hills, with each title overlapping the previous by two to three seconds as one fades out and the other fades in. Already there is the feeling of background distraction, of trying to peel your eyes away from the background and wanting things in the fore to move on and disappear already. Insomnia is tired well before Dormer realises that he will not be able to sleep- it has been awake for some time already, waiting for him.

When we come to meet the people of the town they are not so much underwritten as they are non-entities, and the town itself is in a dramatic space where life and lifelessness are in negotiation. Underdeveloped videogames are known to have a freakish quality where everything visibly works in the service of the only non-artificial intelligence (the player), and Nolan strives for a similar feeling here in the name of minimalism. The problem for his dramatic centrality is that Insomnia‘s fictional world is too responsive to submit to this vantage point, putting him and Dormer in a sort of limbo where they must come to grips with the fact that they are not in control of their surroundings. And like Dormer he exhibits these moments of crass dominance before giving up and just trying to plod through to the end. It’s the film outside of his control, the one that responds and arranges itself around Nolan/Dormer that is the film we feel.

In one scene Dormer crouches down beside the dying Eckhart who feels cold and uncomfortable in the rocks by the stream, and he wants to see his family, and he’s so afraid, and when he sees Dormer he starts panicking, ‘Get away from me.’ It’s a strange moment because Dormer is already processing a way to get out of it, but we don’t want him to leave Eckhart to die alone out in the cold either. We become other to the protagonist, helplessly alone in witnessing the dying man’s fear as something to pity. It feels like the kind of clumsy unsupervised mortality that a director of New Hollywood would’ve let happen, which of course Nolan does not recognise. Instead he instrumentalises the death in terms of Dormer’s psyche, and emphasises through the rest of the film how this will be a major inconvenience to him when Internal Affairs comes knocking. Nolan wants to be clear: this death just adds to Dormer’s plight, but we the audience are able to feel as though we left something behind there, in the rocks by the stream. In another one Dormer notices a dead dog in an alleyway, which is later used as a prop, but even so we are left wondering about the dead dog and who owned it. Earlier we meet the deceased’s abusive boyfriend at school, and although Nolan tries to flatten the location into just the place where information is given (a la Fincher), we are free to wonder what the rest of the school looks like, and how the student body thinks and feels.

When Dormer and Eckhart say ‘they’re coming for me’, we understand that they are talking about Internal Affairs, but Insomnia is so lazily decompressed that any and all banter about a geography outside of the film simply enhances the feeling that we are trapped in a malicious non-space. Furthermore we understand that this is the only place now, their return home, their final destination, their Summerisle. Viewers more interested in reflexive art might appreciate that Williams plays a second-order author embedded in the narrative, who understands this undead town where the sun never sets, and who dryly torments Dormer/Nolan like a trickster ghost able to see through their attempts at controlling the way things will go. However effective the figure is however, and however perfect Williams’ hideously boring performance of lonely evil, he is still used as an expository tool because this is still a film by Christopher Nolan.

The editing in the film is poor as expected, but it never interferes with the action as it does in every other Nolan film post-Insomnia. The chases here are supposed to be disorienting- not trippy in their subjectivity but prone to hiccups and jumps. Who gives a shit whether Dormer two shots ago was beside a stream about to climb a hill but now he’s scaling down from some other direction, when Dormer doesn’t know what he’s doing either. Of course Nolan can’t frame two people in a shot much less three or four, so during conversations things do come apart. Instead of finding a more suitable angle or lens he jumps around the room for a closeup on whoever’s speaking, and even finds a way to make the simple shot reverse shot more exhausting than mindless by cutting on the beat of each speaker’s contribution. It’s like those reality television shows where the fixed cameras are set to automatically start recording whenever anyone says anything or walks into a shot, but without the artificiality that can be so interesting.

The poorly scripted fictional life of Insomnia that feels like a town of NPCs existing solely for one optional quest in an open-world game is perversely compelling, particularly because it feels like things will twist and change once we stop paying attention. Even though the director puts everything to use, the tunnel beneath the cabin and the rickety walkways all register above and beyond their on-screen purpose, waiting to return to normal. It is both stripped of life and full of mystery, lonely and lived-in. It is easy to criticise Nolan’s portentous, clumsily executed films, but I understand that one person’s incompetence is another person’s style. He is not a fundamentally bad artist because no artist is; he just never seems to find the right avenue for his skill set. Insomnia is evidence that his disjunctive sense of control works better mirroring a bleary frustration than it does making statements, if only because it is in this capacity that he makes films that simply feel like something. Insomnia is a bland and hazy film that rationalises itself with neurotic regularity, and so drips with an unexplored melancholy life-force entirely in spite of itself.

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