Comparing Christopher Nolan’s ‘Insomnia’ with his later works


I didn’t know that Insomnia was the first full-length film Christopher Nolan was supposed to direct before Memento. I thought the film was one of those “for hire” jobs that Nolan had undertaken for a giant Hollywood studio to prove his mettle. In fact, it was the other way around. Nolan had approached them first but they took him seriously only after he proved what an incredible talent he was with Memento. His work caught the attention of executive producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, who brought him aboard to take on the project for Warner Bros.

I think more than any film in his impressive oeuvre i.e., anything before Batman Begins, this film proved to be a major turning point in his career. Had it not been for Insomnia, we wouldn’t have gotten The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception etc. Nolan’s remarkable work on the film sparked a long and still ongoing relationship between him and Warner Bros. It was made on a very small budget and the studio made a significant amount of money – but obviously minuscule compared to what The Dark Knight trilogy or Inception made.

Every film he made since then was handled by Warner Bros. The film still holds up well and I see it at least once every year. I watched it again for the 4th or 5th time yesterday and it once again got me thinking how superior it is to some of his later works, like The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. I would say that it looked superior to even The Dark Knight in terms of the performances. Sure, Heath Ledger was absolutely brilliant but I can’t say the same for the rest of the actors, with the exception of Christian Bale’s solid performance. Watching it made me think how these films would’ve been much better if Nolan had paid a little more attention to some areas.

Christopher Nolan with Hilary Swank on set
Christopher Nolan with Hilary Swank on set

Having said that, I’ll admit that those films are endlessly watchable (with the exception of the weak Interstellar) but if I were to pick my Top 3 Nolan films, Insomnia would occupy the first place. I also have a personal reason for that – it was my first Nolan film. Everything else came much later. I still remember that time when I was in high school, slowly getting my first taste of serious cinema, and I had asked my dad to pick up its DVD from the video store because I was already a fan of Al Pacino by then and didn’t know anything about Nolan. The video store clerk, knowing that my dad doesn’t watch such films, asked him: “Who watches these slow films in your house?”

Anyway, speaking of the film, I remember that time when Insomnia was considered a relatively simpler and more straightforward film because everyone was comparing it to Memento, which was so intricate and ambiguous. But now that the Batman films have come out and  Dunkirk on the way, which looks like his most straightforward film till date, Insomnia doesn’t seem so simple anymore. A remake of a Norwegian film by the same name, some of us felt it was much superior to the original. It was a brilliant psychological thriller with a lot of depth. And as usual, Nolan made some minor alterations and included few ideas of his own.

And one could see that Nolan was much more careful and restrained here – in every department – than on any of his other films. Perhaps the flaws in his big blockbusters can be attributed to their large scale and immense pressure that naturally comes along with it. Insomnia marked Nolan’s first collaboration with Al Pacino and Robin Williams (R.I.P). I regard Will Dormer as one of Pacino’s best characters. With that droopy, tired face and baggy eyes, Pacino played the part so convincingly. This is Serpico pushed a little over the edge. And Williams, despite having played two negative characters prior to this (Death to Smoochy and One Hour Photo), made one completely forget that this is the same actor who did Jumanji and Mrs.Doubtfire. He is to Insomnia what Kevin Spacey was to Se7en.


For a newcomer, Nolan’s deft handling of these two giants is certainly commendable. The subject matter was tailor-made for Nolan. This is the first film that he didn’t write but the script still saw some useful contribution from him. Dormer is a classic Nolan protagonist – burdened by guilt and haunted by a past mistake, reasons for which are revealed only towards the end. It’s the guilt that influences his subsequent actions as well as providing the primary antagonist with the perfect incentive to manipulate Dormer. In a normal serial killer film, the villain is revealed only in the end but here, surprisingly, something quite revolutionary happens – he appears much earlier in the story and starts taunting and manipulating Dormer.

There is so much tension and menace in the scenes featuring Dormer and Williams. The chemistry between the two is simply electrifying. Who is playing whom and to what extent? Who will come out the victor in the end? What past mistake is haunting Dormer? These questions keep repeating in our mind as Dormer struggles with his insomnia (with the 24-hr daylight not doing him any good) and guilt. We have a bad guy who constantly tells Dormer that he killed a girl by accident and tries desperately to show Dormer that they are both alike. Dormer sometimes refuses to take the bait. Nolan would try something similar in The Dark Knight as well – The Joker tries to show Batman how similar they are. And Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is as guilt-ridden a man as Dormer is. Bruce Wayne too, thinks he was responsible for someone’s death.

Christopher Nolan with Robin Williams
Christopher Nolan with Robin Williams

Of course, Nolan had explored similar themes in Memento as well. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, Insomnia is technically Nolan’s first feature-length film – in an alternate universe, where his big blockbusters don’t exist (maybe). But I’m glad that didn’t happen because I shudder to think of the world where Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy don’t exist. I’ve seen these films more than 5 times in the theater and they are all very dear to my heart. I only wish he made these smaller, more thought-provoking films occasionally, in between the big ones. I would love to see another The Prestige from him – my most favorite of all his films (along with this one).


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