Insomnia, 1997, directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, written by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg.
Insomnia begins with a scene that opens a thousand police procedurals: a man on a plane looks at a grainy photostat of a corpse. We all know how to read it, too: she's just been murdered, he's been called in to solve the crime. It's comfortable and familiar. Until the detective takes out a ballpoint pen and starts idly scratching out the victim's face.
The first act ofInsomnia is filled with moments like that; scenes that begin like a run-of-the-mill police procedural, but go slightly, uneasily off-kilter. I've seen it four times now, and it still makes me queasy. A lot of this has to do with Stellan Skarsgård's excellent performance as Jonas Engström, a man whose guilt is making him lose his grip on reality. Scratching out the victim's face on the plane flight up is only the first scene that makes clear that Engström is not the sanest guy you'll ever meet. He smells the vicitim's hair during an autopsy, then caresses her face until he notices a female detective staring at him:
Engström, it turns out, is in Norway because he can no longer work in Sweden after being discovered "in intimate conversation" with a witness. And if you know the undying and irrational emnity Swedes and Norwegians have for each other, you know that he's fallen far. To make things worse, he's been assigned a case in the far north of the country, where the sun doesn't set during the summer. In the plus side, he's working with longtime partner Erik Vik, played by Sverre Anker Ousdal. Vik is Engström's link to human warmth, and they relate to each other like an old married couple: Engström pulls things out of Vik's jacket pocket without asking, Vik falls asleep on planes with his head on Engström's shoulder. So when Engström mistakenly kills Vik while trying to apprehend a suspect, he goes a little crazy. And by "a little crazy," I mean "batshit insane." Here he is at his worst:
He doesn't look too together there, obviously. He's hiding behind that door because two local teenagers came into the room while he was planting evidence to frame one of them for murder. And he hasn't slipped out of the room because he's watching them have sex. We already know he likes one of the two teenagers, Frøya (played by Marianne O. Ulrichsen, who was also the production's assistant director):
And we know he likes her, because, despite her tender age, he's slid his hand up her skirt while questioning her. So: how do you make someone this unlikeable the hero of your movie? You make the villain even less likeable. The killer that Engström is after is a writer named Jon Holt, and he's seen Engström shoot his partner. So Holt and Engström become secret sharers, and the revolting pleasure Holt takes in finding someone else who has killed (and in being able to maniuplate him) puts the audience squarely in Engström's column. You can get a sense of Bjørn Floberg's performance as Holt from the scene where Engström first meets him (on a cable car, in a scene that owes a little to The Third Man):
Holt's infuriating smugness is critical to the way Insomnia works. There's no limit to Engström's cold detachment (this is a man who thinks baby kittens are "disgusting"), but he's downright charming next to Holt.
The second key to this movie is that Skarsgård's performance and Skjoldbjærg's direction make it clear that Engström is paying a great psychological toll for the things he has done. It's not called Insomnia for nothing, and even before Erik's death, we know that Engström isn't sleeping well. But as the movie progresses, Skjoldbjærg portrays Engström's insomnia in increasingly subjective ways. The slow fades-to-white that Skjoldbjærg uses in the second half of the movie do a very good job of conveying the horror of being unable to sleep in a place where it's dazzlingly bright all the time.
As you've probably noticed by now, Skjoldbjærg's palette is heavy on the whites and sickly greens (for what it's worth, so is Scandinavia). Insomnia is never pretty to look at; this is deliberate. You're meant to feel as isolated from and alienated by the surroundings as Engström.
As the atmosphere of guilt builds, the structure of the traditional police procedural is left far behind: Insomnia is a psychological study, not a thriller. Nowhere is this more clear than in the debriefing scene towards the end of the movie. After we've seen Engström cover up a shooting, frame an innocent kid for murder, molest a teenager, shoot a dog, nearly rape a hotel clerk, and look away while a paralyzed man drowns, we hear a clueless police officer tell him, "I have to admit you really lived up to your reputation. Never gives up...not until the case is solved." It's the last shambling attempt the movie makes to look like a regular police procedural, and Engström's reaction (he walks out) mirrors the viewer's. Which is not to say we're totally identifying with him. The excrutiating last shot is a head-on long take of Engström driving out of town. He goes through a tunnel, and for once the movie takes us out of the dazzling brightness and into more traditional noir lighting. Skarsgård doesn't look at the camera as he drives; he's got a permanent thousand-yard stare. It's a measure of how well we know Engström by this point that it's a relief he doesn't meet our eyes.
- All the acting is exceptional, but I would be remiss not to mention Gisken Armand's performance. She's the movie's moral center (which is kind of like calling Eva Braun Hitler's conscience; she doesn't play a big role). But her performance is excellent; look at how much about her you learn from the way she holds up one of the victim's dresses:
- Technical, wonky information: Insomnia is the first film in the series to be encoded in anamorphic widescreen. Here's what that means, in a very simplified form: DVD players send out a video signal that's at 640 x 480; that's as much information as they can contain per frame. For a letterboxed, non anamorphic movie, a still looks like this:
- If you have a standard television, that's what you're used to seeing. An anamorphic DVD distorts the image to fill the entire screen, so if you were able to look at the frame data in an unadulterated form, the same still would look like this:
- By distorting the image, the DVD is able to use the full frame for image data, and store more horizontal lines of data. Depending on your setup, the anamorphic image is then either horizontally stretched to fit a 16:9 television, or vertically compressed back into a letterboxed image. The result is a noticeably better picture on 16:9 televisions and computer monitors with no loss of picture quality on standard televisions. Both of the images above have been shrunk to fit this page, but here's a full-resolution version of a letterboxed image, and here's a full-resolution version of an anamorphic image. From this point on, most of the widescreen movies in the collection are anamorphic; the exceptions are mostly movies where the transfer was done for an earlier laserdisc version, since laserdiscs are letterboxed. Of course, movies that have an aspect ration of 1.33:1 or lower can't be anamorphically encoded. Oh, and although the film itself is encoded anamorphically, the menus and extras are all encoded in 4:3. Which means if you don't have a high-end DVD player that correctly reads the aspect ratio flags (I don't), you have to switch between aspect ratios when you move from the movie to the extras. Poor form, Criterion!
- If you want to know whether you can make two movies with the same plot points and roughly the same tone but have them be about completely different things, I direct you to Christopher Nolan's 2002 remake of this film. There are things an American star can't do, and so Al Pacino's version of the Stellan Skarsgård character is, well... different. Here are a few points of comparison:
- Pacino is in Alaska because the bastards at internal affairs want to put child molesters back on the streets and he needs to be out of town while things cool down. Skarsgård is in Norway because he fucked a witness.
- Skarsgård plants a gun at the house of the victim's boyfriend; Pacino is only there to prevent the Jon Holt character from planting the same gun, and unfortunately he can't find the gun in time to stop the cops from assuming he's the murderer.
- Pacino shoots the corpse of a dog that he finds in an alley when he needs to fake some forensics: Skarsgård kills a live dog.
- The American version of the killer is clearly dead when he hits the water at the end of the movie; the Norwegian one is clearly alive (and Skarsgård stands there while he drowns).
- Skarsgård skulks out of town after sucessfully covering up his own culpability in his partner's death; Pacino dies a hero's death after telling Hilary Swank's young cop not to cover up for him.