Criterion: Insomnia, 1997
INSOMNIA, ERIK SKJOLDBJAERG, 1997
Before I delve into the review, please forgive me for a little bit of gushing. This Blu-Ray transfer looks fantastic. The light blue and stark, shining white hue jump really bounce off the screen. The crucial foggy scene where an accident occurs is breathtaking with this transfer. I know of some people that were mixed on the original yet liked the Christopher Nolan remake. My advice is to give this another look on Blu-Ray. Because of the better transfer, the film language is more prominent and speaks better to the characters and their motivations.
Jonas, played flawlessly by Stellan Skarsgård, is a Swedish homicide detective who is called to investigate a murder up in northern Norway. The town is north of the arctic circle, dubbed the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” where for a few months in the summer the sun will remain shining throughout the day and night.
Jonas is far from a sympathetic character. In fact, he’s the opposite. He is not quote an anti-hero, because his actions are so despicable that it’s near impossible to root for him. In one scene he shoots a dog point blank just to dig in and peer into its bloody carcass. The most pivotal scene is after planting some evidence as bait, they chase the likely killer into the shack where the murder occurred, but find that the suspect has escaped through an underground tunnel that leads to the coastline, where a dense, blue fog waits for them. The pursuers split up in. One gets shot in the leg, while the other takes a shot at Jonas. His vision blurred, he sees a shadow of who he believes is his man, and takes a shot. Moments later, he discovers that he killed a fellow officer. Rather than report the crime, he covers it up and tries to pin it on the killer at large, which just adds to the depravity of the character.
Meanwhile, Jonas cannot adjust to the continuous, bright conditions. He tries to duct tape sheets to the windows, yet there is one penetrating beam of light always staring back at him. The hotel room lighting was truly spectacular in setting up the tone of the tortured character. Is he evil because of this hell in which he is living in, or is it a hell because he is evil?
The pulp mystery-novel type of plotting has a couple of problems, but it is secondary to the visual filmmaking and tremendous performances, most notably when Jonas meets the killer and finds common ground. In a way, they are in this together, and Jonas acts accordingly.
As the film progresses, and Jonas’ state degrades, Skarsgård just gets better. He looks like a man delirious, broken, worn down by the punishing sun. His gaze goes blank at times, his head held downward. He makes many pauses, trying to reconcile this dream-like world he is living in. Of course I’ve seen the actor in many tremendous performances such as Breaking the Waves and Dogville, but I believe this is his masterwork, and he single-handedly elevates what would otherwise be mediocre material.
Because of Christopher Nolan’s successful remake, it cannot helped but to make comparisons. Visually both are top-notch filmmaking, and the Nolan version has a better ensemble, is better written, and captures some of the moral ambiguities in the original. It has a half hour running time and adds more exposition to the story, which does help payoff with the conflicts near the end. That said, sometimes less is more, and I’d say the predecessor is better than the higher profile reproduction.
Movie Rating: 8.5
There is a 20-minute conversation between Skarsgård and writer/director Erik Skjoldbjærg. They discussed the process of putting the film together. The lead character was originally going to be Norweigan, but was changed to Swedish after casting the lead actor. One thing that was telling was that Skarsgård admits that he didn’t like the script when he first read it, which led to an uncomfortable pause from the director. It is understandable since this was a first feature, and the actor would be taking a major risk. Skarsgård adds that it was the rich character that drew him to the role. He made the right decision.
There are two short-films, both student films of Skjoldbjærg’s, which I decided to pass on. While I adore Insomnia, the director doesn’t have enough of an impressive body of work that makes me want to explore his originals, unlike someone like Jacques Demy. Maybe one day.
I wish they had added a commentary, whether academic or with the Director and Actors. Since the lead is Swedish and the country Norweigan, there are numerous mentions of the language gap that are probably lost to me and most Western viewers. I’d also like to hear more about the shot selection and some of the behind-the-scenes work.
Criterion Rating: 9/10