Within the first 30 seconds of watching Insomnia you get the impression that it is one of those Criterion releases that is worth the higher DVD price. Opening with a grainy montage reminiscent of Seven, Norwegian Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s impressive directorial debut is a darker and more intelligent film than the later remake starring Al Pacino with which Americans are familiar.
The original Insomnia stars Stellan Skarsgard as Jonas Engstrom, a disgraced but talented Swedish detective. After being caught in an “intimate conversation” with a witness, he seeks a transfer to Norway as a means to escape the scandal threatening his career. Along with his partner, he is sent to investigate the murder of a 17-year-old girl in Tromso, a small Norwegian town above the Arctic circle.
One of the greatest distinctions between the two film versions is the depiction of the central character. The original film isn’t scared to show us a darker side of the detective. Unlike the later toned-down depiction, he’s far less likeable, and at times cruel and self-serving. Ultimately, this dark anti-hero proves to be a more convincing vessel for the film’s theme of disintegration.
Engstrom is suffering from a severe bout of insomnia, caused by the unrelenting 24-hour sunshine in Tromso. The film’s near monotone visuals reflect his distorted perspectives as sleep deprivation takes its toll. After accidentally shooting his partner, he panics, making a series of disturbing decisions calculated to deflect suspicion from himself. He hopes to blame his partner's death on the killer they were pursuing when the accident occurred.
Unfortunately, the killer has witnessed the shooting and knows the truth. Using this information to his advantage, he forces Engstrom to embark on a sinister game of cat and mouse. As Engstrom is drawn further into a web of deception, he begins to morally decay before our eyes. Tortured by his inability to sleep and guilty conscience, each moral compromise Engstrom makes further blurs the line between the himself and the murderer he is hunting.
Insomnia’s strength lies in Skarsgard’s low-key portrayal of the detective. He was in his mid-forties when he played Engstrom, yet looks much younger. His attractive, quiet demeanor masks his inner turmoil perfectly.
Not surprisingly, it was Skarsgard’s powerful back-to-back performances in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia that opened the doors to a series of roles in Hollywood films. While once virtually unknown outside Scandinavia, he has since become an Internationally acclaimed actor.
The Criterion release boasts a beautiful 16×9 anamorphic transfer with good sound quality. Its lack of commentary is disappointing but it still remains a must-have DVD to those that appreciate European film noir.