Blu-ray Review: “Insomnia”

Its Blu-ray debut is timed to take advantage of the hubbub surrounding director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, but 2002’s Insomnia would make for a fine summer reissue even if Warner Bros. weren’t already pimping the highly anticipated Inception — to watch Al Pacino trudging around the Alaskan wilderness while you’re sweating through one of the hottest nights of the year is to be reminded that cooler winds will soon prevail.

A remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s film of the same name, Insomnia appears, on the surface, to be your standard crime thriller, transplanted to the icy tundra — as it opens, you’ve got a pair of LAPD detectives flying into a small Alaskan town to assist in a murder investigation. This is Nolan, though; even if what he’s showing you is exactly as it seems, you know there’s some rich subtext running beneath the frame.

Here, it’s a subplot about an internal affairs investigation targeting the detectives, and the conflict that arises when one partner (Hap Eckhart, played by Martin Donovan) decides to cut a deal that will implicate the other (Will Dormer, played by Pacino). Without spoiling any details, Dormer’s carrying a certain amount of guilt as the movie begins, and events soon transpire that compound it exponentially.

Here’s where the movie’s title comes in. Nightmute, the town where Insomnia takes place, is so far north that during certain times of the year, the sun never sets, and all that sunlight does a number on Dormer’s body clock. No matter what he does — cover his windows with paper, pile furniture in front — he can’t find sleep. He craves darkness, but the light always finds him.

Or is it his guilt?

While all this is going on, Dormer’s hunting his chief suspect, a novelist named Walter Finch (Robin Williams) that had an unusually close relationship with the teenage girl who was murdered, as well as mentoring a young Nightmute police officer (Hilary Swank) whose own investigation yields some unexpected results.

Layers upon layers, in other words, and even though this is a remake with a showy Hollywood cast, Insomnia still offers ample reminders of why Nolan is so highly regarded, with smart editing and terrific use of emotional dynamic. Laden with fog and hushed dialogue (even Pacino’s performance is mostly pretty subdued, aside from a few outbursts and his showy accent), it builds a world rife with quiet tension. It was built with familiar parts, but it’s uniquely gripping.

On Blu-ray, Insomnia looks about as fine as you’d expect, given its recent vintage, its high critical standing, and its director’s close relationship with the studio. Peer closely and you’ll be able to pick out some edge enhancement here and there, but the picture is generally sharp and pleasantly grainy, with the widescreen landscape shots benefiting the most. Conversely, it’s in the film’s most intimate moments that the 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack shines brightest. Every whisper and sigh is captured, and the way the smallest audio details sit front and center helps plunge the viewer into the sort of woozy heightened awareness that comes with prolonged lack of sleep.

Clearly, all the studio’s resources for this title went into the new transfer, because all of the special features were ported over from the 2002 DVD release. There are plenty to choose from — four featurettes, including a rather dull conversation between Nolan and Pacino, two commentary tracks, deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and a stills gallery — but even at the $17.49 pre-release price being offered at Amazon, this version of Insomnia is only worth picking up if you don’t already own the DVD. (That being said, if you do buy it, you also get some nice added value in a bundled voucher for up to $7.50 off a ticket to Inception.)

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  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Credit goes to Nolan simply for keeping Williams and Pacino from going berserk most of the time.

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Maura Tierney pretty much steals it. “There are two kinds of people in Alaska: those who were born here and those who come here to escape something. I wasn't born here.”