Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
Screenplay: Nikolaj Frobenius & Erik Skjoldbjærg
Stars: Stellan Skarsgård (Jonas Engström), Sverre Anker Ousdal (Erik Vik), Bjørn Floberg (Jon Holt), Gisken Armand (Hilde Hagen), Maria Bonnevie (Ane), Kristian Figenschow (Arne Zakariassen), Thor Michael Aamodt (Tom Engen), Bjørn Moan (Eilert), Marianne O. Ulrichsen (Frøya), Frode Rasmussen (Chief of police), Guri Johnson (Mia Nikolaisen), Maria Mathiesen (Tanja)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1997
Country: Norway
Insomnia: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
InsomniaErik Skjoldbjærg’s engrossing feature debut, the Norwegian psychological thriller Insomnia, is set in the director’s hometown of Tromsø, where, due to its location some 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set for two and a half months during the summer. It is in this so-called “Land of the Midnight Sun” that Skjoldbjærg’s tricky murder mystery unfolds, although the film is ultimately less interested in whodunit (which is revealed about halfway through) than it is in the mostly hidden psychological depths of its protagonist Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a Swedish detective who has been brought along with his partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) to Tromsø to investigate the violent death of a 17-year-old girl.

Engström is, in virtually every way, a man out of place. Although he faces both language and cultural barriers as a Swede working in Norway, his primary impediment is his own callousness. A stoic, driven man of great skill and great moral fallibility, Engström arrives already dragging baggage, as rumors of his sexual indiscretion with a witness back in Sweden partially explains why he is now working in Norway. Skarsgård plays the character with a largely impassive expression that obscures what must be a cauldron of tensions, anxieties, and moral reckoning going on underneath, some of which begins to slip out as the days pass without darkness and Engström finds it impossible to sleep, despite taping blankets over his hotel window. Like a contagion, the light seeps through the seams and floods his eyes, threatening to illuminate everything he has to hide.

And Insomnia is primarily a film about secrets, which Skjoldbjærg and co-screenwriter Nikolaj Frobenius enhance by employing narrative and visual ambiguity throughout the film. Those looking for a neat, clean thriller in which all questions are answered and all problems resolved will find Insomnia to be a challenging experience because Skjoldbjærg is not particularly interested in the traditions of the murder-mystery genre. Instead, he is fascinated by the conundrums of human psychology and moral frailty, which is why the film is centered on a protagonist who is generally dislikable as a person, yet is inherently compelling as a human subject.

About a third of the way into the film, Engström sets up a sting to capture the killer, and during a fog-enshrouded chase he accidentally shoots and kills the wrong man. It is an accident, but for reasons both obvious (Norwegian law forbids police officers from carrying weapons) and obscure, he quickly decides to cover up the incident, blaming the suspected killer and manufacturing evidence to hide his guilt. The cold effectiveness with which Engström covers his own crime associates him with the killer he is pursuing, who we first see in grainy 8mm footage during the opening credits washing away all traces of his involvement from the girl’s corpse. Detective and killer becomes symbolically one in the same, the conventional moral spectrum collapses, and thus it is not terribly surprising that during the second half of the film they become literal partners, as each holds evidence that implicates the other in murder.

Working with veteran cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen, Skjoldbjærg creates a unique look for Insomnia that fundamentally inverts the traditional contrast dynamic of film noir by replacing dark with light (its color palette stretches primarily from blinding white to various shades of blue). What is most fascinating about the use of light in the film is that it obscures just as much as it illuminates. The cold, clinical lights of an autopsy room reveal secrets about the girl’s death, but the constant blinding sunlight outside becomes almost overwhelming, drowning the world in a sea of white. Engström squints into the midnight sun, and he tries desperately to keep it out of his room while he lays sleepless in his bed. The light becomes synonymous with his guilt, and as he begins to act more and more like a tyrant, most frighteningly in a sexual tryst gone bad with the hotel’s pretty receptionist (Maria Bonnevie), we get the sense that his true self is being fully revealed. The lack of sleep starts to strip away that carefully controlled, stoic exterior, revealing something that may be fully monstrous underneath. Insomnia is a thriller in which monsters pursue monsters, and the lack of clear-cut resolution at the end is only appropriate given the ambiguous nature of all that has preceded it. The midnight sun shines, but never quite illuminates.

Insomnia Criterion Collection Blu-ray / DVD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioNorweigan/Swedish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
Subtitles English
  • New conversation between director Erik Skjoldbjærg and actor Stellan Skarsgård
  • Two short films by Skjoldbjærg: Near Winter (1993) and Close to Home (1994)
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Jonathan Romney
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 22, 2014

    If memory serves, Insomnia was the first of Criterion’s DVDs to be presented in anamorphic widescreen, which at the time was quite a big deal in terms of enhancing the presentation. That being said, the old DVD can’t hold a candle to the new 4K digital restoration on this Blu-ray, which was taken from then original 35mm camera negative. The image is eye-opening in its sharpness and detail, revealing a wealth of information in the image that wasn’t available in the softer, lower-resolution DVD transfer. The new high-definition transfer handles the film’s intense brightness with great aplomb, giving us blinding white vistas that contrast beautifully with the various shades of blue and gray that dominate the film’s color palette. The soundtrack, which features an excellent, haunting electronic score, was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm LTRT magnetic track and is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel surround. The surround effects are somewhat limited by what is essentially a stereo mix, but it sounds clean and is quite effective in maintaining the film’s mood.
    While Criterion’s 1999 DVD was pretty much bare-bones, for the Blu-ray release they have added a few supplements, starting with a 20-minute conversation between director Erik Skjoldbjærg and actor Stellan Skarsgård. Skarsgård essentially interviews Skjoldbjærg about the making of the film and its genesis, and he offers some thoughts on his own involvement (not to mention some amusing criticism, such as when he tells Skjoldbjærg that he didn’t like the script the first time he read it). In addition the theatrical trailer, the disc also includes Near Winter (1993) and Close to Home (1994), two short films Skjoldbjærg made while a student at the National Film School in London (both run about half an hour in length).

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2024 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.