Judge Clark Douglas is still haunted by the time he accidentally killed a review.
He who sins, does not sleep.
"Say what you have to say."
Facts of the Case
A teenage girl has been murdered in Norway, and Swedish investigator Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgard, Breaking the Waves) has been called in to examine the case. The city in which the murder occurred is an unusual one: it has a 24-hour daylight cycle, which makes it particularly difficult for outsiders like Jonas to sleep. Early in the investigation, a tense confrontation with the primary suspect leads to Jonas accidentally killing his partner Erik (Sverre Anker Ousdal, The Secret Life of Words). Rather than confessing to the accident and facing the consequences, Jonas decides to cover up the evidence and blame Erik's murder on the suspected killer. Eventually, the hunter and the hunted meet and begin forming a rather unusual relationship.
Like many American viewers, the first version of Insomnia I experienced was the 2002 remake directed by Christopher Nolan. It's a fine film, but it differs in a number of significant ways from the original helmed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg. While Nolan's movie essentially has three primary characters (the detectives played by Al Pacino and Hilary Swank, plus the killer played by Robin Williams), the original is very much a focused single-character study which pushes everyone else to the margins. For the most part, the 1997 version of Insomnia is a tighter, leaner, nastier affair. While I'd argue that the original version is the slightly superior version, it's worth noting that the two movies are different enough to prevent either from feeling pointless.
As played by Stellan Skarsgard, Jonas Engstrom is essentially a variation on Bad Lieutenant. He's not as unhinged as the Harvey Keitel character, but he's entirely too willing to cross ethical boundaries and is constantly wracked with guilt. He isn't a lovable antihero or somebody who's willing to do the wrong thing for the right reason—he's a self-preserving creep who often seems unsure of precisely where he's headed. Skarsgard's world-weary (and physically weary) performance is loaded with sweaty tension and palpable self-loathing, and he tends to react to his increasingly despairing circumstances with an exhausted snarl rather than a mournful sigh. It's one of the great roles of his career, and the sort of meaty part he ought to have been given more often in the years since the film's release.
Skjoldbjaerg's sense of atmosphere is exceptionally strong, too. The film feels like the antithesis of many dark, grubby-looking movies about murder investigations, as the constant daylight and Norwegian setting leads to a color palette dominated by bright whites of various shades. It's difficult to operate in the shadows when no shadows exist (though there is a prominent instance of fog). The film moves at a steady clip, as it avoids needless subplots and focuses exclusively on the inner conflict of its central character. The most prominent secondary character is undoubtedly the killer (played with slippery confidence by Bjorn Floberg, A Somewhat Gentle Man), but even he ultimately serves as the film's way of forcing Jonas to turn introspective about personal matters he might otherwise ignore.
Insomnia (Blu-ray) benefits from a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which does a fine job of showcasing the bright, barren Norwegian landscape. This really is one of the most visually absorbing crime dramas I can recall, as the overwhelming lightness contrasts so sharply with the gloomy subject matter. Detail is terrific, a natural level of grain is present throughout and depth is strong. The DTS HD-2.0 Master Audio track gets the job done nicely as well, though this is largely a dialogue-driven film (only some slightly-too-aggressive opening and closing credits pieces feel out of sync with the subtle soundtrack). Supplements include a very enjoyable chat with Skarsgard and Skjoldbjaerg (running just over twenty minutes) and two short films made by the director: "Near Winter" (33 minutes) and "Close to Home" (32 minutes). None of these supplements were featured on the previous DVD release, so there's plenty of incentive to upgrade. You also get a trailer, a DVD copy and a booklet featuring an essay by Jonathan Romney.
Insomnia is a spare, compelling crime drama built around a superb central performance. If you're only familiar with the Nolan flick, consider familiarizing yourself with its slightly more unsettling inspiration.
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