Insomnia (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 1997) – Though sadly overshadowed by the Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan American remake, Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia remains one of the greatest thrillers of the 90s. While Skjoldbjaerg never quite managed to deliver an adequate follow up, his directorial debut was one of the most striking of his era. It’s a film executed with such complete control of all of the thematic, narrative, and stylistic elements that it seems almost impossible to imagine he had never made a feature before.
Insomnia is an inverse film noir, offering a hardboiled crime story riddled with guilt set in a landscape of 24-hour daylight with no shadows to offer relief or escape for a protagonist diving into darkness. The film starts off as a seemingly conventional serial killer police procedural before transforming into an exploration of the effects of intense guilt on the human psyche that somehow manages to become more tense and exciting when the conventional genre elements are stripped away. Nolan may have done a good job at remaking the film for Hollywood without losing its dark soul, but he never came close to matching the hypnotic and haunting nature of Skjoldbjaerg’s original. Then again, neither did Skjoldbjaerg.
The film stars Stellan Skarsgard as a detective sent to solve a murder in a small Norwegian town in the midst of a 24-hour sunlit summer. Skjoldbjaerg opens with deeply creepy 8mm footage of a murder and a methodical killer so careful to remove any trace of evidence from the body that he even washes his victim’s hair. With surprising speed, Skarsgard is able to track down the whereabouts of the killer and brings a team of local cops with him. They spot the killer entering his creepy cabin on a foggy lakeside and a chase kicks off. Caught in the fog, Skarsgard accidentally shoots his partner thinking that he’s the killer. Since cops can’t carry guns without special permission in Norway, Skarsgard covers up the crime claiming it was the killer who shot his partner. There’s only one witness who knows otherwise and it’s the killer himself, a local crime novelist who quickly becomes obsessed by their secret. In the American remake, at this point the movie turned into a game of cat and mouse. In Skjoldbjaerg’s film it’s just one of many elements causing Skarsgard to question his mind and lose his soul. Catching the killer also becomes incidental in the second half of the movie, which is more about exploring how far Skarsgard will go and what it will cost him.
There’s an almost indescribable, hypnotic power to Insomnia. The white blinding light central to the film prevents any conventional noir trappings and the director pushes things even further by removing almost all props from the sets and avoiding conventional coverage in favor of wandering, queasy visuals that freely break continuity. You’re never certain where to look or why, and it adds up to an almost nauseous sense of suspense. The plot unfolds with precision and devoid of clichés. It’s a true modern thriller with a hero far more morally compromised than anyone who appears to be a villain.
Skarsgard’s poker face performance is a thing of beauty without ever letting the audience in. It’s impossible to tell precisely what he’s thinking or feeling at any moment and Skjoldbjaerg’s gamely plays with that ambiguity, frequently tossing in moments that might only be occurring in his mind to deliver a deeply unreliable narrator. It’s a gripping and disturbing ride and one filled with all of the visual metaphors and pregnant silences that one might expect from a European art film without ever becoming pretentious. Insomnia plays as a thriller, yet offers an onion’s worth of layers to peel back if you so choose. Just like classic film noir, minus the shadows.
Criterion’s new Blu-Ray of Insomnia serves up easily one of their most beautiful transfers to date. Given the white light glaze/haze that hangs over the film, it’s a movie that DVD could never quite capture. On Blu-Ray, the film retains the eerie glow over every scene that Skjoldbjaerg always intended. It’s an intensely atmospheric aesthetic that adds immeasurably to the film’s power in HD. Audio is also, crisp clear, and disturbing, but given that it’s a foreign film from the late 90s, there’s no 7.1 or even 5.1 mix, so don’t expect that. Special features kick off with a wonderful interview between Skarsgard and Skjoldbjaerg. The playful Skarsgard drives the chat, even humorously admitting that he didn’t think the script was interesting and didn’t trust the director on first meeting, but now thinks the film is a remarkable achievement. Skjoldbjaerg delves into all of his stylistic and thematic goals in the film with great insight and clarity. In 20-minutes the two of them cover more info than most full-length commentary tracks.
Next up come a pair of 30-minute short films that Skjoldbjaerg made before Insomnia and both are impressive. The first, Near Winter, is a gently disturbing drama about a family falling apart. The second, Close to Home, is a clever little thriller about a teacher who is wrongfully accused of rape, which then causes him to examine the other things that he is certainly guilty of. Both are quite impressive, but Close to Home easily comes out on top and feels like a loose thematic prequel to Insomnia in many ways. Toss in a well-made trailer and wonderful essay from Jonathan Romney and you’ve got quite an impressive little package from Criterion. If you haven’t seen Insomnia, rush out to get the disc. Thrillers and neo-noir this strong are rare and the film is a bit of a masterpiece of its genre. It’s a real shame that the remake has overshadowed the original over the years, because as good as Nolan’s version is, few thrillers are quite as affecting as Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia. (Phil Brown)