Insomnia’s opening credits sequence is so curiously separate from the remainder of the film that one can’t help imagine director Erik Skjoldbjærg conceived it ex post facto, as a means to replicate the similarly lurid credits sequence of David Fincher’s Se7en. Fincher called upon title designer Kyle Cooper to create a credits montage in an attempt to quickly set the film’s maniacal tone and Skjoldbjærg continues this logic, tout court. Both sequences trade on a vile misconception of the grotesque, conflating murderous psychopathology with glitchy edits and an electronic-based soundtrack, helping to breed a pop nihilism forged under an art-as-snuff aesthetic that would become, and has remained, a dominant cultural expression of murderous ruin.
Fortunately, Skjoldbjærg’s film retreats enough from such a fashionable misstep for much of its remainder to make it both tolerable and sporadically exemplary. Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) is a Swedish police officer sent to investigate a young Norwegian woman’s murder. Skjoldbjærg begins with Engström aboard a flight across the Arctic Circle, staring out a window into what seems like a sunny, foggy abyss. Engström’s headed to the land of the “midnight sun,” and the window through which he peers affords a seemingly boundless illumination of what lies beyond and enough light to view the darkened photographs of a dead girl which sit atop his lap. The sequence suggests that one frame holds the potential to afford the revelation of another, but only to the extent that such light remains in view and unencumbered by maskings, physical or ethical. Once darkened or blackened, such affordances are lost. Skjoldbjærg anchors this guiding metaphor throughout, pitting Engström against the bright, but morally shady Norwegian milieu, a mysterious killer, and most dauntingly, himself.
Insomnia follows Fargo in what could be called a noir blanc, inverting the visual schema of classical film noir where light, not darkness, becomes the locus of socioeconomic terror. After all, the light is what haunts Engström, whose inability to sleep causes him not only to accidentally kill his partner, Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), but informs his impotent behavior with women, most notably Ane (Maria Bonnevie), the hotel matriarch of the space that houses Engström’s professional demons and masculine inadequacies. Ane’s remarks about Vik affect Engström because of their ghostly portent: “Weird. He was standing there yesterday.” Vik’s patriarchal status has been usurped by Engström’s careless bullet from an unauthorized gun, leaving an Oedipal specter to haunt his progressively restless psyche.
Skjoldbjærg’s best devices come via these more kinky psychological elements. Namely, the girl’s murderer (Bjørn Floberg) is mostly an afterthought to Engström’s manic-obsessive pursuits and Skjoldbjærg wisely resolves their confrontation as a matter of clumsiness atop a shoddy pier rather than engaging a more drawn-out cat-and-mouse set piece. The most compelling scenes, however, involve Engström’s desperate sexual advances, which are ambiguously and consistently thwarted throughout the film. When he shamelessly gropes the bare thighs of a young witness, Frøya (Marianne O. Ulrichsen), his power-play move is broken once he makes eye contact with her. Later, when trying to pin Ane against an oddly placed stack of toilet-paper rolls, she rebuffs him, replying, “I just wanted to show you the kittens.” Finally, after planting a gun in the bedroom of Eilert (Bjørn Moan), Engström is caught behind a door and forced to watch Eilert and Frøya have sex on the bed, with the planted murder weapon just inches below them. Skjoldbjærg makes clear here, if not already apparent enough, that Engström’s ineptitudes with the murder case derive from his latent sexual frustrations, which can only be assuaged through exertion of police power. Like any number of psychopaths before him, Engström substitutes violence and phallic, sanctioned power for his lost sexuality.
At least, this is the narrative that Skjoldbjærg clearly wants to put forth. Yet his psychosexual puzzle pieces don’t ultimately amount to more than genre play of the most postmodern sort, locating significance not through human insight with recourse to matters beyond the frame, but simply archetypal tomfoolery with a permanent, brooding sneer. Much like other wrongheaded neo-noirs such as Body Heat and Red Rock West, Insomnia covets “nourish” as an end, as if attempting to perform Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir” in the form of a feature film. Moreover, Insomnia is so humorless (okay, the kittens line isn’t half bad), that its significance beyond a stylistic calling card becomes an illumination the film ironically cannot disguise. Nevertheless, Skjoldbjærg’s eye for composition and remarkable play with a muted, mostly gray-scale color scheme complement Engström’s insanity nicely, though this remains a film more notable for its unique setting and bizarro scenario than an accomplished genre work of deeper, underlying convictions. It ultimately runs into similar traps as another calling-card film, Christopher Nolan’s Following, so it’s no surprise that Nolan opted in for the American remake.
The Criterion Collection’s new 4K transfer is an incredible improvement upon the 1999 DVD release, and in many respects, Insomnia looks like a film from the future. The Norwegian terrain is captured with stunning clarity, and while often appearing as if the key light is just inches away from actors’ faces, the transfer never feels overexposed beyond Erik Skjoldbjærg’s intentions. Close-ups and deep focus benefit most significantly, revealing a resplendent vision that was muddled on Criterion’s original DVD. Sound is of equal strength, as Geir Jenssen’s unsettling electronic-based score suitably booms through the speakers when called upon. Dialogue resounds with impressive force given the two-channel surround. Altogether, it’s one of Criterion’s finest audio-visual accomplishments to date.
Insomnia is less interesting for its contexts than the images on screen, so it’s difficult to scoff at Criterion’s lighter treatment. The highlight is a 20-minute conversation between Skjoldbjærg and Stellan Skarsgård filmed in 2014, with the pair reminiscing about the production and the impetus behind the film’s creation. Skjoldbjærg cites Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Nicolas Roeg as filmmakers he had in mind while shooting, while Skarsgård reveals that he had substantial doubts about both the script and Skjoldbjærg’s capabilities as a director when agreeing to do the film, though he remarks that he believes Insomnia holds up well. Two short films from Skjoldbjærg, Near Winter (1993) and Close to Home (1994), display an inexperienced yet curious filmmaker into less conventional narrative beats and stark visuals, so it’s unsurprising that Insomnia resulted from these early efforts. In addition, the film’s Norwegian trailer is included. Finally, an essay by Jonathan Romney offers a reading of the film’s more ambiguous elements, including the possibility that several of the film’s events are products of Engström’s imagination and an examination of Insomnia’s place within the emergence of "Nordic noir."
It might be summer, but your living room will rarely feel as icy cold when playing Criterion’s excellent 4K transfer of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia.