Insomnia (1997) Erik Skjoldbjærg
Criterion Collection DVD (library)
Watching Insomnia, you have to keep reminding yourself that this was Erik Skjoldbjærg’s feature film debut. It certainly doesn’t have the look or feel of a first-time director, although Skjoldbjærg had completed shorter films previous to Insomnia (two of which are included on the Criterion release). As far as I can tell, none of Skjoldbjærg’s subsequent films have had the influence or impact of Insomnia.
Insomnia is a two-sided coin. On one side – roughly the first half of the film – we have a murder mystery: a teenage girl has been found murdered in Tromsø, a town in northern Norway. A Swedish detective named Jonas Engström is brought in to lead the investigation, and the second half of the film’s focus is on him.
Tromsø (Skjoldbjærg’s hometown) is located about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so during its late spring and summer months, night doesn’t fall. Engström has a tough time dealing with the never-ending light, but that’s not the real reason he can’t get any sleep. He’s got a troubled past he’s trying to deal with and hide from. Engström’s reputation as a top-notch detective precedes him, so most of the local police unquestioningly heed his every word, but a policewoman named Ane (Maria Bonnevie) seems able to look right through him, sensing that something’s amiss.
The key scene in the film occurs when Engström attempts to force the killer into the open during an extremely foggy morning in a rock-strewn area. A disorienting chase scene follows, one that’s brilliantly shot and masterfully edited. Things happen so fast – and mostly from Engström’s point of view – that we’re not sure of the exact sequence of events, but we (and Engström) realize something truly awful has occurred. Engström makes a quick and possibly career-ending decision that drives the rest of the film.
Skjoldbjærg makes several important directorial decisions with Insomnia, the most obvious of which is to keep nearly every scene well-illuminated. If the film can be called a film noir or a neo-noir (and I think it should), it goes against type by being the brightest visual noir I can think of. In nearly every scene, Skjoldbjærg uses the barest of sets with the barest of props and wall-hangings. Even Engström himself seems to walk around with a pale, ghostly pallor, making his face nearly unreadable.
The starkness of the visual palette contrasts sharply with the turmoil that’s going on inside Engström. We know that he’s trying to cover up something from his past and as we watch, we see things that he’s trying to hide. In fact, the longer he’s on-screen, the less we like him and soon we begin to suspect his motives.
But not only his motives; we also suspect his emotional state. Many events happen via the detective’s point of view that we’re not really sure did happen. One such event occurs as Engström drives the murdered girl’s classmate Frøya (Marianne O. Ulrichsen) to view “something important” about the case. This is a disturbing scene, but we’re not 100% sure if this really happened or if it’s a product of Engström’s troubled mind.
So is Engström simply a troubled policeman trying to do the right thing (as we see in many classic noir films) or is there something deeper going on? Engström is one of the greatest flawed movie detectives in recent history (played superbly by Stellan Skarsgård) and Skjoldbjærg knows that Insomnia is ultimately more concerned with Engström than with solving a murder. (That’s not to say that the murder isn’t solved; it actually is.)
We’re all human and we all try to cover up the worst parts of our lives, but Engström has taken his cover-ups to a whole other level. He’s got many qualities and traits in common with Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, the only difference being, perhaps, that Engström has a bit more of a conscience left. Perhaps.
If Insomnia can be called “Norwegian noir” – a term that really took off after the Steig Larsson Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels – it’s probably the forerunner of that sub-genre and perhaps better than its successors. Insomnia was remade in 2002 by Christopher Nolan starring Al Pacino in the lead role. I prefer Skjoldbjærg’s original, especially his examination of a character and his flaws and how those flaws, in the face of intense pressure, create some devastating drama.