Insomnia (1997)

Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg. Written by Nikolaj Frobenius og Erik Skjoldbjærg. 

A never-ending day in northern Norway is the setting for dark deeds in Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia, a bleak murder story where a taken life is just the start of men’s crimes.  

Stellan Skarsgård is detective Jonas Engström, a Swede who’s sent to the arctic circle from Oslo to solve the murder of a local teen. The sun doesn’t set here for about a month during the summer, and the brightness has him on edge.

He doesn’t sleep well, despite every attempt to block the sunlight from entering his hotel room, and at work, he also can’t hide, as his reputation precedes him. He no longer works in Sweden due to improprieties on his part during a case, and while a policeman suffering consequences for their misdeeds suggests a moral universe in Insomnia, it’s not the case. 

A grave mistake early on in the investigation turns the case away from being a manhunt to an exposé of men’s cynicism and abuse of power. There are only victims here and little justice to hope for. Expect no grizzly murder scenes, because you’ll find very little to churn your stomach. There’s plenty to make you feel sick to your gut, however.  

Icy electronica provides the beat Insomnia marches to as it relentlessly descends into the morass, and Skjoldbærg’s direction is a similarly well-oiled machine that focuses more on letting characters reveal themselves through action. Some police officers discussing Engström’s past is the only real framing you get, and from then on it’s just by-the-numbers police work and by-the-numbers malfeasance. People are too good at what they do in Insomnia, and it’s depressing. The small town and its innocents are on their own. 

The endless day makes for an oppressive atmosphere and it’s really a master stroke of narrative framing, adding insult to injury, as most of what you’ll see belongs under the cover of night. The story also attaches itself at the hip to Engström, and while he suffers from insomnia (and the moral anguish of his other transgressions, you hope), we suffer too in this waking nightmare of pitch-black cynicism. There’s no escaping it, and we see too much. 

It’s easy to understand why Skarsgård has made a career of either playing villains or tragic figures, because in Insomnia he fuses them into one. Engström is every bit a capable detective, but also a man with serious flaws. Skarsgård has the charisma to support Engström’s arrogance, but also the ability and willingness to show off the anxiety behind it.

When it comes to murder stories meant to disillusion you about the world, Insomnia proves less is more and succeeds with icy venom. A lot of films want to shock you with grotesque scenarios of torture, killings and torment, but Insomnia upsets by tapping hopelessness, a state realized by conducting its business in plain sight. We can all recognize the small town of Insomnia as our own to some extent, and its people as ourselves. To see what happens to them is all the more disturbing as a result.  

It has a spiritual cousin in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, a similarly misanthropic detective story released the same year. The two films both make their outcomes out to be inevitable, doing so with their unadorned direction which removes the feeling that what you’re watching has been manipulated for dramatic effect. When their outcomes seem to suggest there’s no moral arc to the universe and society’s keepers may even be those keeping it off-balance, the result is impenetrable darkness, no matter what time of day it is.  

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