dir: Christopher Nolan
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Well, who wasn't going to be disappointed by Nolan's follow up to Memento? Nolan had the profoundly unenviable task of moving on from one of the most critically celebrated films of the last bunch of years, and delivered a film that many would find unsatisfactory simply due to its conventionality, solely in comparison. Despite this, he has managed to deliver a decent film, again, showing that he is a quality director, and that he's not just a one-trick pony.
Many refer to the central conceit of Memento, being the non-linear format, as a gimmick, almost as if it was a flaw. They mean it as a pejorative term. That's fine and dandy, but without it, instead of being a brilliant film with a sad, occasionally affecting story, it would have been an unworkable yet mundane revenge 'thriller' with a joyously happy ending. Perhaps he should have also taken out the main character's progressive amnesia / Korsakov's syndrome out as well just to make it extra simple for the test audience demographics that he never screened it to.
Okay, so Nolan likes to work with somewhat 'dark' matter, we can appreciate that. In Insomnia (which as any sentient beings would know is a remake of a 1997 Swedish film which starred Stellan Skarsgard in the role played here by Al "I don't just chew the scenery, I fuck it as well" Pacino), his protagonist is an old Los Angeles "hero" cop with many, many skeletons hidden in the crawlspace. In terms of recent American film I am trying to think of occasions where the protagonist in a film has been a corrupt cop, but I'm not coming up with a lot of answers. I'm narrowing it down to contexts where the protagonist was supposed to be essentially a "good" guy that we were supposed to understand and support, as opposed to the Bad Lieutenant school of filmmaking, where we keep watching with a sick fascination to see what new level of depravity they're going to sink to. Currently I am only coming up with the character Michael Douglas played in Black Rain, who was a very dirty cop yet was still supposed to be heroic, and the cop characters in LA Confidential, who were all so bent it became an exercise in hierarchy construction in terms of working out who was the least corrupt of all the fuckers in the film. Training Day could get mentioned here as well for the character that Denzel Washington won an entire Oscar for, but seeing as he is the film's villain, and the fact that I am still angry over the last stupid, stupid, stupid ruinous third of the film, I shall regretfully decline to do so.
We see cops in films all the time, constantly in fact. Television has also been awash in cop shows for the last fifty years. Despite the fact that it's a shitty job and that no-one respects you when you're a cop in these crazy, turvy topsey times, the people that create quality film and tv drama persist in using the format and the characters because it allows the telling of all those stories that we know and treasure: violence, justice, crime, murder and revenge. It appeals to us on a deep level, it has to, otherwise they wouldn't be pumping out so much crap in it's name.
We don't always have the cop protagonists being as bent as the criminals they are going after. It's almost standard in Hong Kong and Japanese cinema, but not in Western cinema. We want to generally still believe that they are essentially decent men and women representing the last defense against the forces of nastiness that lurk out there just waiting to tear us the audience new orifices and steal our DVD players.
Here we have a guy, Detective Will Dormer (played by Al Pacino) who comes across as a decent guy, but is unavoidably and certainly corrupt. That's the thing with these sort of concepts: as far as I'm concerned, the ends don't justify the means, and a decent cop that commits one act of illegality is a corrupt cop, there's no two ways around it. You're not 'slightly' corrupt or well meaning, if you cross the line, you're a motherfucker no better than the criminals that you chase for similar crimes. The fact that you wear the badge makes you doubly culpable.
Of course grey areas are supposed to exist. The film is all about those grey areas that cynical audiences delight in. In this scenario, we have a cop whose prime motivation initially is catching the perpetrator of a terrible crime, but eventually concentrates on protecting himself. Hilarity ensues. Or maybe not.
Pacino puts in a decent performance, which surprised me. The man has become a chronic overactor in the last few decades, to the point where regardless of whether he's meant to be playing the hero or the villain, he seems to be playing nothing more than a variation on Yosemite Sam on amphetamines.
Here Nolan somehow induced him to tone himself down to allow the story to tell itself. It helps as well that he is so physically appropriate for the role, looking like the ragged old goat that he truly is.
Suffering from insomnia is truly a terrible affliction. Okay, so on the surface it doesn't seem to be on a par with having to exist in an iron lung machine or dying from syphilis, but it is a maddening condition. As someone whose girlfriend and one of his closest friends suffer from the condition knows, it's a mind fucker of a condition. Pernicious, all pervasive, it can from my experience fuck up every moment of your waking day, and the day of the poor person that has to listen to you complaining about it ad nauseum.
Its purpose here is twofold, ignoring the fact that it's the title of the film as well. The setting, which is Nightmute, Alaska, is in its annual phase of perpetual daylight, which is dramatically outside the experience of most people who live south and north of our planet's poles. It doesn't seem like much, but it did get me thinking about how different your experience would be of the passing of days when there's no night to act as a bookmark. Personally, as a night person I can totally appreciate and lust after the idea of living in perpetual twilight, but I can also see that a realm of constant sunlight would be, for me at least, hell on earth.
Of course in this instance the setting acts as a signifier. What I mean is pretty simplistic: the old adage goes that a person can "sleep the sleep of the just", which is an idiom representing both the idea of a good night's sleep and the simplistic nature of morality that we inevitably have thrust upon us. Those that do not sleep as well have a conscience that weighs upon their souls heavily. In a way the constant, unavoidable sunlight acts as the analog of the heartbeat that the protagonist hears constantly in the Edgar Allen Poe story of "The Telltale Heart". Our "hero" cannot avoid his crimes, and his aren't even the worst ones in the film.
A girl has been murdered, brutally beaten to death, and two big city cops are sent up to the Alaskan boondocks to ostensibly help out the local yokels. They (being Pacino and Martin Donovan as Det. Hap Eckart) are actually sent there because those dreaded Internal Affairs cops are looking into their affairs. Whilst becoming embroiled in trying to solve the case for the benefit of the Alaskan bumpkins, other more serious issues come to the fore: Hap Eckart, much to the chagrin of Dormer, is set to make a deal with IA in order to save himself from jail time. Regardless of how much he assures the Dormer character that it won't affect him, all that Pacino's cipher can see is his eventual incarceration, and more importantly (at least that's what he says), the potential release of every criminal he's ever arrested that's been convicted of a crime, regardless of their guilt. I can appreciate that level of so called ethical complexity, even if it is ham-handed in its realisation.
The plot neatly brings all of these past issues to the fore, from the moment that Dormer makes what appears to be a critical mistake, which he spends the rest of the film trying to cover up. It's intelligently done. The police procedural aspects of the film are handled moderately well, despite the gradual decline into desperation. By the time the actual murderer comes onto the scene the situation is so resolutely fucked up that you just wonder how much more complicated things can get. And they do, most assuredly.
There is one sequence whose staggering illogic still makes me shake my head: Dormer is in a house that he shouldn't be in, for reasons that aren't immediately apparent, when the police come barging in. Even the most ignorant fool would know that when exercising such a warrant to search an individual's place, when they don't know where the guy potentially is, and they think that he's a copkiller, they would exhibit fundamental caution and give an all-clear by checking every single fucking room in the given space before proceeding. They don't in this instance, saving our protagonist from embarrassing questions, but it just didn't make sense. Even Melbourne police would have exhibited more professionalism, and it irritated me no end. Convenience is not a word I would have thought to associate with Christopher Nolan, in that as complex as Memento may have been, it never took easy routes.
Robin Williams plays the killer, a mundane killer all the same, where his crimes seem to be almost secondary to the main issues going on. He plays it blankly, I guess we're supposed to see that he is an unimportant sociopath whose crime, whilst terrible, is secondary to the drama surrounding the detective who is meant to catch or kill him. He does a passable job, nothing extremely spectacular, but it is refreshing all the same, in terms of the fact that the idealisation of serial killers and other fuckers has been occurring in films for the longest time, building them up into these scenery chewing Hannibal Lecteresque supervillains who get all the best lines and dazzle us with their casual disregard for the sanctity of human life. Fuck that for a game of soldiers. I've got no love or respect for people that end the life of another person for no good reason, regardless of willing suspensions of disbelief, and I have the most flexible set of ethics that you will ever come across during your dismal time on this planet.
They, being our "hero" and our "villain", enter into an uneasy alliance, pretty much to protect themselves, though we get the feeling that the Walter Finch character wants Dormer's understanding and perhaps his approval. We don't really know where the Dormer character is coming from at all times, but we do suspect that he wants to do the "right" thing and the "wrong" thing at the same time. Never disregard the importance of self-preservation, it's in our DNA, people.
Hillary Swank, being the strange creature that she is spends the first three quarters of the film being puppy dog annoying in her adulation of the Los Angeles cops and the last quarter working out the important plot details in a totally brilliant way by sitting in her four wheel drive and looking pensive. I will never understand that woman's success in Hollywood.
The scenery plays an appreciable role as well in the proceedings. British Columbia (in Canada, for those of you so geographically challenged that it makes me despair for the entire human race) stands in for Nightmute, and provides some awesome vistas, truly stunning scenery, but it's not that much of a big deal in the scope of the film. The scenery we spend most of the film watching is the wrinkles on Pacino's face as he wrestles with his fate and with the blinds in his hotel room, trying in vain, and in a Kafkaesque fashion, to stop the sunlight from coming in, to no avail.
It's an okay film. It's not brilliant. It's not Memento, that's for damn sure, and I do appreciate complicated personal / ethical situations. By film's end, I collected my jacket and my bag, and walked out of the theatre, mostly unimpressed, but also mindful of the fact that before walking into the place I was unlikely to like the film as much as Memento. Poor Christopher Nolan, that damn film is going to be haunting him for his entire career. And I hope it's a long one.
7 beatings to death out of 10
-- "Shut your sound tube, taco human." - Invader Zim