While Erik Skjoldbjærg built upon the established cinematic traditions of procedural crime thrillers, in the light of the recent trend of atmospheric crime procedurals such as True Detective, The Killing, Prisoners, 1997’s Insomnia, in hindsight looks to be a direct aesthetic antecedent for these other more successful pictures/series.
Insomnia (1997) dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Maria Mathiesen, Sverre Anker Ousdal
By Alan Bacchus
Insomnia was by no means an unsuccessful picture, the film received a prestigious slot at the Toronto International Film Festival, a US sale and theatrical release, but it will perhaps best be known by the Christopher Nolan remade version in 2002 starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams.
Set in the northern hinterland of Norway, a place so far north its seasons wax and wane between periods of near complete sunlight and near complete darkness, opening video footage depicts the death of a young teenage girl setting in motion the journey of maudlin Swedish police detective Jonas Engstrom (Skarsgård) into this land of the midnight sun. Immediately Engstrom is affected by the 24 hour daylight, wandering through the small town investigation in a delirious haze of sleeplessness.
Despite the delirium Engstrom is still able to execute his big city investigative tactics and quickly sort through the evidence to find the details of importance and attention. After looking through the victim’s wardrobe and noticing a number of high priced clothing items for instance he quickly deducing she must have had a older and wealthier benefactor/lover.
After randomly stumbling upon the victim’s discarded backpack, Engstrom cleverly engineers a trap to flush out the killer who presumably aims to reclaim the bag. This becomes the key set piece and turning point of the film, a superbly orchestrated chase sequence through the ominous Norwegain fog wherein Engstrom accidentally shoots his partner thinking it’s the killer. In any other situation Engstrom would likely have gotten off charges of homicide, but his insomniac delirium causes him to hide his tracks and pin the shooting on the chased killer.
This devious narrative twist turns around the conventions of the genre aligning Engstrom with the killer as he tries to hide the evidence of his accidentally malfeasance. Engstrom lies compound on one another devolving his moral judgment each step of the way.
While the narrative twist is a delightfully fresh take on the genre Skjoldbjærg’s depiction of Engstrom’s slow descent into madness anchors the picture in character. The identity of the killer becomes inconsequential to our focus on the Skjoldbjærg’s tortured hero. With limited dialogue Skarsgård's great physical performance is able to express the character's self-doubt, anguish and confusion through his movements, expression and posture.
The concept of a noir in daylight became one of the publicized hooks of the film, and Erling Thurmann-Andersen’s moody lighting compliments Skjoldbjærg’s quiet atmospheric tone perfectly. Unfortunately the career of Mr. Skjoldbjærg never quite took off after this remarkable film, or at least he has yet to better this debut film, but the reverence The Criterion Collection has demonstrated by anointing the picture in its library has assured Skjoldbjærg a legacy which can never be taken away.
Insomnia is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection