Insomnia (1997)

Review #1,320






THE SCOOP
Director:  Erik Skjoldbjærg
Cast:   Stellan Skarsgård, Maria Mathiesen, Sverre Anker Ousdal
Plot:  In a Norwegian city with a 24-hour daylight cycle, a Swedish murder investigator has been brought in on a special murder case.

Genre:  Crime / Mystery / Thriller
Awards:  -
Runtime:  96min
Rating:  M18 for some violence and sexual references.
International Sales:  Seawell Films

IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Modern Nordic movies about ghastly crimes and police procedurals owe a debt to Erik Skjoldbjærg's feature debut, Insomnia.  Although very much defined by films such as Headhunters (2011) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), and popularized even further by the American remake directed by David Fincher in 2011, the Nordic crime genre—if it could be construed as such and in its myriad of manifestations—has had a cult following by cinephiles fascinated by the monstrosity of crimes set against a seemingly cold and inhospitable place. 

Insomnia, a Norwegian mystery about a killer who is alleged to have been responsible for the death of a teenage girl, is also a character study on the protagonist, Jonas Engström, a Swedish cop who specifically flies in to investigate the case.  He is played by the charismatic Stellan Skarsgård, who delivers a brooding performance.

The murderer is revealed earlier than expected, intentionally by Skjoldbjærg—though it may not have been the wisest decision as it dissipates any narrative tension—thus clearing the path for a more complex psychological study to unfold, that of a cop battling his own demons. 

Insomnia is not so much about the crime or the killer, but the person who is investigating it—he's also under the audience's scrutiny.  Faced with a 24-hour daylight cycle that keeps him from sleeping, and haunted by a past marked by unethical misdeeds and professional breaches of trust, Jonas is forced to do some soul-searching in the process of his investigation.

The film is moderately tense, and does so largely through its camerawork and blocking.  With some clever camera tricks, use of sound design and editing, we are deceived into thinking that, for example, there may be someone else in an apartment that Jonas is searching for clues.  The suspense comes from technique rather than our fear for the character’s well-being.

Very much a throwback to noir films, Insomnia is slow-burning with a sense of mystery—the man of mystery is of course Jonas.  But because of the phenomenon of the midnight sun, the entire film is bright and sunny, almost to the point of being clinical and methodical, save for a chase scene in a dark tunnel. 

It’s a Nordic noir—or blanc—that plays outside of the box.  It doesn’t always work, and expectations that it could be much more suspenseful with feelings of dread and uncertainty don’t always materialize.  Overall, this is a solid first feature, but it is a pity that Skjoldbjærg has not done a better movie since. 

Verdict:  It won’t set your heart racing, but this moderately-tense Nordic noir—or blanc—operates as a clever psychological study.  

GRADE: B 






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