Insomnia is almost the ultimate film noir inverse, an argument supported strongest by its location – a small town in Alaska during the time of year in which it never gets dark, ever. In the noir films of the 1940s and 50’s, and even the majority of the neo-noirs produced in the decades following, high contrast cinematography, shadows, and scenes at night reined in setting tone and atmosphere and revealing character motive and identity. They functioned on the fear of the unknown and the impossibility of being certain about someone obstructed by figurative and literal shadow. The genre’s aesthetic informed its dealings in murky morality.
Not so with Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, and this compelling subversion does a lot to elevate an otherwise standard neo-noir police thriller. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner are sent from Los Angeles up to a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in order to get them away from the LAPD while an internal investigation comes down on Dormer, whose career has been less than clean. Corruption obfuscates the truth even when there are no shadows. The girl’s killer (a brilliant Robin Williams performance) is never in question. He and Dormer meet on a ferry in broad daylight, not to fight, but to discuss and negotiate.
What is a fairly by the numbers police procedural transcends a bit, in part due to Nolan’s formal rigor. Dormer is plagued by images and fragments coming back to haunt him, his compromise eating away at him, the neverending Alaskan light piercing through the cracks in his hotel room and preventing him sleep. At one point, in the almost completely dark hotel room, he tells the clerk, “it’s so bright in here.” Insomnia is a haunting morality play – film noir with the lights on, laid bare.