You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest budget–do I repeat myself?–about the inner life of a morally compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.
Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film of ideas–in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.
I care about The Believer, first of all, because its writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it’s a jumble on which we may stake our lives. That’s why the disorderliness can be dramatic in itself–provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a compelling enough character.
So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The Believer by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas–but it’s his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood, as a Nazi activist.
Now, I’ve hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine, the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.) The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September 2001–not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.
Those who choose to do so will discover that The Believer starts in two locations at once, on the subway and inside Danny’s skull. In the exterior setting, Danny is a twentyish skinhead, who when first seen is methodically harassing a bespectacled, yarmulke-wearing youth on the elevated train. Danny crowds the prey, crunching his Doc Marten boots all over the guy’s wing-tips. Then, when the victim behaves like a victim–avoiding eye contact, fleeing the subway at the first opportunity–Danny pursues him onto the street. “Hit me! Please!” Danny howls. The less resistance he gets, the more enraged he becomes, till he stomps the timid, book-toting Jew.
Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, we also get access to Danny’s memory, in which he’s forever the pale student with big eyeglasses. We see Danny in the yeshiva at about age 12–just another of the boys, except for his rage against the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to slaughter his own son as an offering to God. None of the standard, moralized readings of this tale will assuage Danny. He insists that Abraham’s sacrifice made the Jews into a race of willing victims, perpetually crushed by a God who holds them to be worthless.
You see why this stuff can make people nervous. It’s not just that Danny takes Jewish self-hatred to its ultimate conclusion–he takes it there theologically, argumentatively, with a foul-mouthed, spray-the-room exuberance that will offend every moviegoer. Zionists, for example, will object when Danny says the Israelis aren’t real Jews–they have soil, and the kind of manliness a fascist like him can respect. Supporters of the Palestinians, on the other hand, will cringe to hear Danny denounce the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. (With friends like this…)
But I’m making The Believer sound like a string of provocations, and it’s not. It’s a modernist tragedy, meaning one that’s realized with equal measures of sympathy and irony. When Danny tries to enlist in an “above-ground, intellectually serious fascist movement,” its leaders (Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) welcome his anti-Semitic tirades but dismiss his offer to kill Jews. Instead, to his horror, they make him into a fundraiser, with a suit and a cell phone. When Danny hooks up with a dreamily masochistic young Aryan (Summer Phoenix), it isn’t long before she decides to study Hebrew, hangs a mezuzah on the door and starts wearing ankle-length dresses. Yes, hit me! Please! The harder Danny tries to be a Nazi, the more ineluctably he’s a Jew.
I begin to think of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, who is a Christian preacher in spite of himself. According to O’Connor, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to rid himself of Jesus: “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.” In the same way, many wills conflict in Danny, with that of the faithful Jew refusing to die away. At one point, in fact, Danny secretly wraps a prayer shawl around his torso, much as Hazel wound himself in penitential barbed wire. Then, like any good yeshiva boy, Danny lets the fringes dangle beneath the T-shirt, which in his case is emblazoned with a swastika.
It’s good to see someone take such care with his appearance. Most American movies these days are little more than fashion statements–and yet the characters are shockingly thoughtless about their clothes.
So we come to Al Pacino’s leather jacket.
It plays quite a prominent role in Insomnia, a movie whose premise goes like this: Someone in the remote town of Nightmute, Alaska, has murdered a high school girl. The victim clearly knew her killer, and the local population is neither large nor highly mobile. Nevertheless, the Nightmute police feel too humble to work the case on their own. They send for help–though not from Nome or Anchorage, nor even from Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. They go all the way to Los Angeles, whose police department immediately agrees to dispatch two of its top detectives, despite their being under investigation by Internal Affairs.
I tried explaining all this to my friend Ben Sonnenberg, who seemed puzzled. “But what about Eddie Murphy?” he asked. “Was he too busy to come from Detroit?”
Reassure yourself, Ben. Eddie has answered the call, in effect if not in person. That’s the point of the leather jacket.
It’s hard to imagine Pacino’s character, Detective Will Dormer, going out and buying this item for himself. It’s a little too heavy for the climate in LA, a little too pimp-chic for a cop who’s supposed to be an agonized moralist. With its supple new leather, the jacket looks more like something that was recently issued to the guy–which, of course, it was. The filmmakers decided this was just the thing to signal “cool, hip and streetwise” for Pacino. In much the same way, they imposed a symbolic costume on the murderer, Robin Williams. Although the script says he’s vain and attracted to luxury, Williams is draped in something that says “phony, out-of-touch intellectual”: a corduroy jacket.
Don’t worry, by the way, that I’ve revealed the killer’s identity. You’d be able to figure it out for yourself, by process of elimination, no more than ten minutes into the movie, which is about twenty minutes before Williams comes into the open. The mystery of Insomnia has nothing to do with discovering he’s the murderer and everything to do with his somehow being able to deliver a restrained, nuanced, convincingly chilling performance. There’s Robin Williams, taking care of business, while everybody else is goofing off.
Pacino behaves ridiculously, as he typically does when the script’s a laugh. Hilary Swank has no such history of egregious mugging; but now, in the role of a local cop, she bounces onto the screen like a young squirrel on its first day of acorn school. Who allowed these performances, or maybe even encouraged them? Christopher Nolan, that’s who. He was so intent on dolloping pizazz onto this story that he didn’t notice the visual syrup was drowning a six-inch stack of toaster waffles.
I’m sure Insomnia will have its champions, even so. They’ll claim the picture is About Something, namely the importance of never, ever breaking the rules. That’s the one, big idea of Insomnia. As we may learn from life and better movies, it’s wrong.
Screening Schedule: Speaking of people who broke rules, Lynne Sachs has made a fine, artful documentary about the Catonsville Nine, the war protesters who walked into a Selective Service office in 1968, grabbed as many files as they could carry and burned them with homemade napalm. She’s got the surviving protesters down on film, Philip and Daniel Berrigan among them; and she’s got other interested parties too, including the district attorney who prosecuted the Nine and one of the jurors who convicted them. The juror weeps now, out of respect for their courage. The film is titled Investigation of a Flame, and it’s showing in New York at Anthology Film Archives, May 29-31. The distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, (800) 876-1710.