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Blu-ray Review: ‘Insomnia’ (1997) – The Criterion Collection

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The 1997 Norwegian film Insomnia, starring Stellan Skarsgård, is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. On the surface the film is a gritty crime thriller involving the death of a young girl in the Norwegian town of Tromsø. But Insomnia is much more than that. Director Erik Skjoldbjӕrg, in his first feature film, combines character study, psychological thriller, and an examination of just how far desperation will take someone in this film. The Criterion release looks and sounds great and also offers up a decent amount of extras that should intrigue fans of this film.

Insomnia 2One of the most striking aspects of Insomnia is the setting. Tromsø is located in the Arctic Circle, where there are periods of perpetual daylight. Unlike a lot of thrillers, there are few dark shadows for bad guys to hide behind. The sun is always shining, but it’s not a warm, summery feeling. Instead the light provides a stark, revealing brightness that dominates everything. It’s not an atmosphere for secrets, but there are many in this film. Most belong to Jonas Engstrӧm (Skarsgård), a police detective who has been called in to investigate the murder of a teenage girl.

We soon realize that Engstrӧm is much more interesting than the crime he’s investigating. If there was ever a flawed hero in a film, it’s Engstrӧm. He has troubled relationships, doesn’t relate well to women, and is very gruff in his demeanor. After bungling the investigation, Engstrӧm finds himself having to cover up his own crime. He’s a hard character to like and nearly impossible to relate to. In a lot of ways this film borders on being a complete turn off. The mystery of the girl’s death is not all that interesting, Engstrӧm is unsympathetic, and there is not an abundance of action. However, there is something in that ever-bright setting that keeps everything enticing.

It’s the sense of stark reality that is laid out, meaning there’s never a chance to hide in the darkness. Everything is as plain as day, but everyone turns a blind eye to it. In the end, without actually revealing the conclusion, we have real life—where everything doesn’t exactly turn out is it should, but life goes on anyway. The film is uncompromising in this aspect and Skarsgård is equally uncompromising in his performance. Never does he give in and turn Engstrӧm into a likeable hero. His outstanding acting alone makes this film worth watching.

Insomnia 1Criterion’s new transfer was struck from the original 35mm camera negative (as explained in the included 20-page booklet). The emphasis is on the deliberately over-bright image. Black levels are hardly a concern with a film this uniquely bright, though shadow detail is strong in dimly-lighted interior scenes. This is an incredibly clean presentation. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo soundtrack is in Norwegian (English subtitles are of course included). There isn’t much going on from an audio standpoint, but the dialogue is crisp. Noise anomalies or distortion are non-existent. A great remastering job by Criterion.

Special features are not extensive, but there are some worthwhile pieces. A brand new interview with director Erik Skjoldbjӕrg and star Stellan Skarsgård runs 21 minutes and contains a wealth of insight about Insomnia. There are also two Skjoldbjӕrg-directed short films: Near Winter (1993) and Close to Home (1993). Each runs about a half-hour. This is a dual-format release, meaning that a standard DVD is included in the package along with the Blu-ray. Criterion’s excellent release also includes a lengthy essay, “Unbearable Lightness,” by film critic Jonathan Romney.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.
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