Unnerving ‘Insomnia’ Gets Under Your Skin

[2 September 2014]

By John Oursler

Most people know Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, the 2002 psychological thriller starring Al Pacino and the recently departed Robin Williams, which helped cement Nolan’s reputation as a director whose dark, mature work could succeed both critically and commercially. Few people, regrettably, know the better work from which it is adapted.

Erik Skjoldbjærg’s original work of the same name is a tight, nerve-wracking film that succeeds primarily because it has no template or frame of reference. Watching it now might actually negate some of its ingenious subversion of hero storylines and easy answers, but when it was released to universal rave reviews, the film’s bleak immersion was altogether new.

Perennially underrated Stellan Skarsgård leads as Jonas Engstrom, a former Swedish police officer who, along with his colleague Erik, is called in to investigate the murder of a 17 year old girl in Tromsø, an industrial town situated way up north in Norway, above the Arctic Circle. It is immediately apparent that Engstrom will, at best, achieve antihero status; the audience discovers early on that he was fired after having sexual relations with one of the witnesses in a case.

Skarsgård’s brooding workingman gruffness perfectly suits the chilly atmosphere Skjoldbjærg creates, as the film’s slow-burn creepiness gets under the viewer’s skin only gradually, and in large part as a result of Skarsgård’s unnerving performance. Engstrom accidentally kills Erik as they pursue the murderer, subsequently lying to cover up the honest mistake that will grow to haunt his thoughts. The misty opaqueness of the region is partly to blame, but so too is the insomnia-addled confusion that increasingly wracks Engstrom’s senses.

For his part, Skjoldbjærg sets the mood through a style that can be described as anxious. He exploits the natural landscape afforded him by the hinterlands of Norway to manipulate the senses of his characters, the claustrophobia of which seeps over in the narrative. Enveloped in white, the visuals mirror the interminability of daylight in this remote part of the world, as the titular condition insidiously clouds Engstrom’s faculties. As his sleep deprivation continues, his ability to discern between right and wrong comparably erodes: he at first wants to confess to the murder, but recoils; the gun Engstrom uses was concealed contraband, as Norwegian police do not carry firearms; he tampers with ballistic evidence, framing a young man who subsequently becomes a suspect as a result.

Engstrom’s slow descent into madness is encapsulated within the environment he temporarily inhabits, an aspect of Skjoldbjærg’s film that further tackles the nature/nurture debate, albeit secondarily. Eventually he has a real suspect he wishes to pursue, but must do so only circuitously as a result of the incessant need to cover-up his digressions. The man, an older crime novelist, immediately sets off his radar, though Engstrom’s previous shadiness complicates matters as he must now deal with hiding his own crimes while trying to shed light on others.

The insomnia Engstrom battles eventually catches up to him, with Skjoldbjærg manifesting the madness through a series of distortions, askew glances and angles, and scenes that come off as a disquieting marriage of surrealism and psychodrama. The third-act killer pursuit has all the flourishes of the best police procedurals, even though Engstrom’s antihero status harkens closer to the darkness and disease of early noir. In one of the disk’s excellent special features, Skjoldbjærg and Skarsgård reminisce on the film’s production and inspiration, with the director noting that it was American noir that provided the central spark behind the story’s lurid undertones. Skjoldbjærg also notes that he knew he’d found his leading man as soon as he met Skarsgård after an exhaustive casting process. It’s not hard to see why.

By the end of the film few answers have been provided, but the audience still believes, more or less, that Engstrom is in the right, even though his methods are unorthodox and not entirely above reproach. Skjoldbjærg keeps the action bristling in spite of, and likely as a result of, the dour tones and impenetrability that keeps the audience in an unyielding state of confusion.

Included as special features on Criterion’s updated edition of Insomnia are two of Skjoldbjærg’s student films, both hovering around the 40 minute mark. Both films display the maturity that would soon mark his feature films. Near Winter is a heartbreaking tale of family and aging on a remote country farm, showing with heartbreaking simplicity how a younger family member struggles to watch one they love acquiesce to age and sickness, while at the same time fearing those things in their own future. Though a minor work, it is not to be missed.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/184964-unnerving-insomnia-gets-under-the-skin/