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Nolan’s Forgotten Film: Revisiting Insomnia

“A good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t let him. “

When discussing Christopher Nolan’s films, it’s almost always Insomnia that gets missed off the list. Released in 2002, and sandwiched between the release of Memento (2000) and Batman Begins (2005), it is often overlooked. Insomnia is not written by Nolan but by screenwriter Hillary Seitz, but it is very much a Nolan-esque film and deserves to be revisited. The film explores themes that recur throughout Nolan’s films, and the structure of it’s narrative follows the same complex nature of other plots in his films.


The film follows veteran police detective Will Dormer (Al Pancino) who is requested to investigate the tragic murder of young woman in the Alaskan town of Nightmute, where the sun doesn’t set. Dormer is accompanied by his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and local cop Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank). The puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, when the murder victim’s backpack is found and Dormer decides to lure the killer out by using the backpack. However, the killer manages to escape the trap and in the chaos that follows, Dormer shoots Eckhart. Dormer is unsure whether it was or wasn’t an accident, but decides to pin the blame on the killer.

Unknown to Dormer, his crime has been witnessed by the killer who decides to use this knowledge as leverage against the detective. As the narrative unfolds, Dormer becomes an insomniac as he’s unable to sleep due to the constant sunshine. Not only has he got to outsmart the killer, but he is also faced with the investigation into the death of his partner. Slowly, he starts to question his whole reality and the world that he finds himself in.

Like many of Nolan’s films, Insomnia deals with the theme of identity crisis, we see this in The Dark Knight trilogy where Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has to take on another persona and identity to seek justice. And we see it in The Prestige as well. Here in Insomnia, there are two characters who have identity issues. Firstly we have Dormer who is renowned and admired police detective, who has a reputation for always catching the bad guy, but he is also dealing with another personality/identity where he is unravelling and is doubtful. Dormer becomes a shell of his former self, he becomes unstable and prone to violent outbursts, and like Bale’s Batman the only way Dormer can get results is to unrelease his rage upon others.

Much like The Dark Knight (2008) we see a similar shift in personality and questioning of competence with Batman who becomes provoked by The Joker (Heath Ledger), who manipulates the situation, and is always one step ahead of the “greatest detective.” The situation is the same in Insomnia, as Dormer’s “Joker” is in the form of Walter Finch (Robin Williams). Finch controls the chess board, and uses Dormer’s identity crisis to his advantage.

Insomnia also deals with the theme of regret, and it’s main character is being haunted by his past. This is a common theme in Nolan’s films, Inception (2010) features the character of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is tormented by the tragic death of his wife and his failure to save her. In Insomnia Dormer is also haunted by a previous case he worked on where he planted evidence, this mistake haunts him to the point where he can’t sleep and he envisions an extreme close up image of blood being absorb by the cuff of his shirt.


The real reason that Dormer is suffering from insomnia is because of his moral structure is collapsing, and he can no longer suppress his guilt. And, like Cobb facing his inner demons in the form of Mal (his wife), Dormer must confront his in the form of Finch. Nolan’s characters always have the confront the threat and the trauma of the past in order to find redemption, even if it costs them their lives.

Like many of Nolan’s film, the narrative is a jigsaw that we are expected to solve, as some questions are left unanswered. We know very little about Finch, what led him to come to Nightmute in the first place? Why did Dormer instruct Burr to redo her report into the death of Eckhart? And did Dormer actually intend to shoot his partner. Nolan leaves it up to the audience to come their conclusions, he doesn’t lead them by the hand or over-explain every little detail.

This is what is so refreshing about Insomnia because it represents the messy ambiguity of real life crime, sometimes we never fully understand a killer’s motives. Insomnia is very much a Nolan film, and we should make sure to revisit it sometime because it deserves a second life.



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