Went to the movies today (surprise, surprise) and saw Insomnia
and Undercover Brother
is the second remake I saw this weekend, but this time, I can compare the film with the original, which I saw at the Cinematheque a few years ago (of course, while I liked the original, I feel no undue allegiance to it, and consequentially, my memory of it has faded somewhat). Actually, I think that comparing the new, Americanized version with the original Norwegian film can illuminate what the new version is all about, as the two major changes to the plot are directly related to the new version’s theme. In the original, Stellan Skarsgaard played a good, Swedish detective, but a bad human being, sent to investigate the murder of a young girl in a remote Norwegian town above the Arctic Circle. In the new version, Al Pacino plays a dedicated, and save for one exception, honest cop, and more importantly, he’s ultimately a good person, even if he has to first face his own personal demons, which stem from an earlier transgression; he framed a child murder suspect (who he believed to be guilty, based on 30 years of experience and intuition, instead of evidence), and now due to an Internal Affairs corruption probe of his LAPD unit, his partner is willing to give him up to save himself, and Pacino’s Det. Dormer can’t allow that to happen, or all of the criminals he put away will get out of jail. Skarsgaard character, on the other hand, is a rather amoral, grade-A bastard, who goes to the Norwegian fishing village, primarily because his reputation at home is under a dark cloud, since he slept with a witness back in Sweden. You can already see how the set-up would drastically change the movie. The accidental shooting of the partner in the fog, and the subsequent cover-up, as well as the further investigation into the first murder, is pretty consistent, but the movie has changed, instead of watching a physical, psychological, and moral disintegration of a (amoral) person, all under the cold, constant, unblinking light of the Arctic, winter sun; we see the corruption and eventual redemption of Det. Dormer, mostly through his decision at the end, to confront Robert William’s murderer, Finch, and own up to his transgressions to his eager beaver junior partner, Hillary Swank’s local detective Ellie, encouraging her not to follow his path by covering up his crimes (and earlier, he confessed his LAPD frame-up to Maura Tierney’s local innkeeper, trying to justify himself, but she refuses to ultimately judge him; from the original I remember, that the innkeeper was a much less likable character, and was having an affair with Skarsgaard). He then dies. In the original, while everyone may have their doubts, Skarsgaard gets away with everything, but he is a soulless wreck, driving home alone, into the harsh Arctic light, his eyes light up and then the screen fades to black, except for the cold, piercing light of his eyes (much like the unforgiving light of the winter sun).
These are the two most significant changes to the new version, and they completely recast the film, I remember the first film as cold, brutal, and ugly, but the new version has been significantly changed in other respects. The isolated Norwegian town of the original was bleak, depressed, and run down, far from pretty; on the other hand, the isolated Alaskan town looks relatively prosperous, and is surrounded by spectacular wilderness vistas, captured in cinemascope and rich color. Other prominent changes have been made to make Pacino’s character more sympathetic, someone who would actually desire redemption. For instance, there is the much noted change (in the reviews that I’ve read) of Pacino shooting a dead dog instead of a live one to obtain the bullet that will allow him to escape responsibility by changing the ballistics report; another is his relationship with the murder victim’s best friend, which is much, much more sexually orientated in the original film, giving it all a much more creepy bent. Another significant change, is the amount of time spent watching Pacino trying to get some sleep, as he is kept awake both by the never setting sun and his own guilt. These scenes are more protracted in the Norwegian version, to the point where they made me feel uncomfortable, to a point where I could empathize with Skarsgaard’s personal agony (I kept on waiting for the shade to pop up, like it did many times in the Norwegian version).
Many commentators have remarked that this is a much more conventional film for Christopher Nolan, that it doesn’t display the genius of Memento
, instead a workman like professionalism, if not conventionalism. That’s not a completely fair charge; the film, in terms of narrative, is relatively linear and conventional, especially when compared with the multiple chronologies of Memento
. But it shares a significant feature with the earlier film, it is relentlessly tied to one character's subjectivity, either by recreating Dormer’s POV, with audio and visual hallucinations; rack focus to simulate blurry, tired eyes; and quick shots, snatches of Dormer’s memories and fantasies (the repeated close-up of a smiling Kay, the murder victim, that Dormer becomes somewhat obsessed with). Almost everything is filtered through Dormer’s perspective, either directly, or indirectly in what Edward Branigan calls “focalization.” (If anyone is interested in an expanded discussion of focalization, see Edward Branigan’s Narrative Comprehension and Film
, especially pp. 101-102) The camera either presents us with Dormer’s subjective POV or everything is presented as he would experience it. I really liked Nolan’s usage of different formal techniques to represent Dormer’s subjective experience, especially his use of sound: his heightened awareness of the repeated, mundane sounds in the PD office, after shooting his partner; the muffled, underwater thuds of logs colliding with one another during the harrowing sequence where Dormer chases Finch across the log jam and falls in the water; and the persistent, dull screeching of the windshield wipers as the extremely weary Dormer drives to his final confrontation with Finch.
Some quick notes on the acting, Pacino looks tired. Our first glimpse of Dormer is aboard the plane, a close-up and he already looks world-weary and exhausted, and he only gets worse (haggard is a key adjective to describe his performance). It’s a nice, modulated performance, not among his best, IMO, but he does convey a sense of increasing exhaustion, of the confusion of a tired mind, of a mind that is still sharp, but now clicking a few moments slower than usual, allowing both Finch and Ellie to get to him. It’s nice to see Williams in a role where he is trying not to beatify himself; his Finch is portrayed as a smart, yet incredibly smarmy man, and it’s not a stretch to believe him as a sexual predator, or serial killer in the making. To me, his mania could always mask the darkness underneath (especially since his initial mania was fueled by cocaine). He does get the best line in the film however, when he asks Dormer to feed his dogs (a throw-away termite line of dialogue in a white elephant movie, kind of like my appreciaton of Unfaithful