HonkWatch #044: Insomnia (1997)

Insomnia (1997)

As a confirmed insomniac myself, I was always going to identify with Insomnia. It’s about a Swedish cop, Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), who along with his colleague has been drafted in to help investigate the murder of a young woman in a Norwegian town in the Arctic circle.

It’s summer, so even the nights are illuminated by daylight; and yet it’s a noir thriller. The shadows are ever-present, but only in the mind – all the evidence is hidden in plain sight, under the glare of a sun which never goes down.

Engström is not a particularly likable person, but he is an excellent investigator. Unfortunately he has what in films like these are called ‘issues’; and thrown into a world where the nights never darken, he finds himself unable to rest, to sleep. He is tortured by the brightness, by his own hubris, by his desires and his fallibility – a photo-negative rendering of a classic noir story. He soon uncovers the murderer, but his own actions compromise what should be a simple takedown, compounding the evil rather than mitigating it. All the while, the sun beats down, and he cannot sleep. And as his decisions become ever more poorly chosen, so their consequences lead him further from the path of righteousness. He is a sinner who shuns salvation, a bright sun fast burning out.

In this scene we find him in a back alley, contemplating his mistakes early on, alone but for a dead dog. He has the chance to make amends, to repent, but he will not do that. He has become his own god, and he thinks he can save himself. He vomits, but he does not purge his soul of the growing madness that grips him. He is mortal, and we identify with him, despite his unpleasantness and the horror of his actions.

It’s all filmed with threatening stillness, in cold blue tones, by director Erik Skjoldbjærg and cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen, with the occasional bursts of unexpected but realistically low key action. There are red herrings and MacGuffins, loose ends and loose characters. And there is an amazing electronic ambient score by Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere). It was remade in an Alaskan setting by Christopher Nolan in 2002. Starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, this version retains the basic tone whilst tweaking some of the characterisations and plot points, and is one of the better Hollywood retoolings.

But for a more raw exploration of morality and free will under guise of a cop thriller, go with the original.

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