- Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
- Writers: Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius
- Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Bjørn Floberg, Gisken Armand, Maria Bonnevie, Bjørn Moan, Maria Mathiesen, Marianne O. Ulrichsen, Kristian Figenschow, Thor Michael Aamodt, and Frode Rasmussen
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on the Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV
For some movies you have to go, “here’s the plot, it may not sound like any great shakes, but I promise it’s very well done,” and then there are movies like Insomnia, where the premise basically sells itself. Whether this is the case for you personally with any particular movie premise is a different question, but the elevator pitch for Insomnia is 100% Something I Would Watch. Norway’s entry in our World Cinema Winter Festival is a thriller about a big city (in this case the big city is Oslo, I think) detective called in to investigate the brutal murder of a teenage girl in a small town. The thing is, this small town is Tromsø, Norway, above the Arctic Circle, and for two months every summer (aka when this movie is taking place) the sun never sets, even in the middle of the night. Our detective finds that he can’t sleep, and some combination of the case, the constant sunlight, and other things is causing him to go crazy.
Detective Engstrom is played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, his part being rewritten after his casting to make the character a Swede who had moved to Norway. This distinction actually matters in more than one way that I don’t think I initially picked up on, including that Swedish police officers generally do carry firearms while their Norwegian counterparts do not, a fact that becomes very important to the plot of the movie. In any case, English-language viewers are likely to recognize Skarsgård, as he, partly due to the notoriety of his role in this movie, has since transitioned to mostly taking English-speaking roles. This included a recurring Marvel Cinematic Universe Role as Norwegian scientist Erik Selvig, because, as I confirmed watching this movie, Swedish and Norwegian accents all sound the same to us Americans. Skarsgård (with lots of makeup) also appeared this past year as the villainous Baron Harkonnen in the new Dune movie.
There is a term you’ll hear today, “Nordic Noir,” which stems from the sudden and surprising international popularity over the past 20 years or so of various crime novels from Scandinavia, such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and their movie and TV adaptations. Insomnia has been sort of retroactively subsumed within this trend, though it certainly predated any idea of “Nordic Noir” as a thing. As the director, Erik Skjoldbjærg, points out in an interview on the Criterion Channel special features for the movie, there probably hadn’t been a domestically-made thriller made in Norway for ten years at the time this movie came out. It was very much an original thing.
Another thing Skjoldbjærg points out in that interview is that, while, yes, Insomnia is very much a movie influenced by the mid-20th century classic Film Noirs, what it is really doing is taking the whole “noir” thing and inverting it in more ways than one. On an aesthetic level, of course, noir is all about the hard shadows and the night, while Insomnia not only takes place during the day, it emphasizes this effect with a lot of flat whiteness, blank walls, and curtains. In a key outdoor scene, the characters are disoriented and lose track of each other, not because it’s too dark, but because of an all-encompassing white fog. But inversion isn’t just aesthetic, it’s happening in the actual plot of the movie. While many film noir plots are about the darkness encroaching and eventually enveloping the lives of previously upstanding characters (see Fred MacMurray’s insurance guy in Double Indemnity), Insomnia is about its characters desperately, and ultimately unsuccessfully, trying to keep their dark secrets out of the light. I feel like it would be a disservice to everyone to sit here and lay out the plot of the movie, but I will say that what I initially thought was going to be a slightly off-kilter take on a Silence of the Lambs-type serial killer thriller veers way off course from that pretty quickly. That’s because this is a movie far more interested in the inner craziness of its characters than it is in whether a particular murderer is going to get caught or not.
This was the debut feature for Skjoldbjærg, who went to film school in the UK before working on the script with a writing partner for five years (while making other short films, etc.). He had actually grown up in Tromsø, but said that he didn’t really think about the town’s potential as a setting until an international fencing competition took place there and he heard all the competitors complaining about being unable to sleep from the constant sunlight. Though Skjoldbjærg had always just accepting the seasonal sun cycles as a fact of life, he said “I sort of saw their point,” and changed the script from its original setting in, of all places, the Canary Islands, and finally found his movie.
Unsurprisingly, Insomnia received, in fairly short order, an American remake, directed by a young Christopher Nolan. Honestly if the original was in English and you told me Christopher Nolan had directed it, I would believe you. I sort of recall the remake being a flop, and it could have been in a financial sense, it apparently did receive something like a 92% Rotten Tomatoes score and lots of positive reviews. Though the two plots sound very close (the remake has an LAPD detective trying to solve a murder in Alaska), I have a feeling that they are, in the end, very different movies, not least because of the casting choices: while Skarsgård plays his character with a great deal of reserve, communicating his character’s inner life through very small choices, the American version is played by Al Pacino. Perhaps even more interestingly, the American version recasts the part of the detective’s main suspect, a crime novelist originally played by Bjørn Floberg, with, of all people, Robin Williams. But I’m told it works, so maybe I’ll have to check it out.
Norway was not, in the mid-1990s, a country much known for its film industry, but it has since gained in international prominence, to the point that there are multiple Norwegian TV series on multiple streaming platforms that I am either currently watching or have been told by people to watch, and there is right at this moment a Norwegian movie (The Worst Person in the World) that is playing at the mainstream multiplex down the street from my house and up for multiple Oscars. One such anecdote would be that the decade from 2000 to 2010 has far more films linked on the “Cinema of Norway” Wikipedia page than the several decades before that combined, with Insomnia the only Norwegian movie from 1960 to 2000 that I had ever actually heard of (though I maybe should have heard of Søndagsengler, a Best Foreign Language Film nominee in 1996), while I’ve heard of maybe a dozen since then. But is that a product of increased globalization or higher quality of output? In other words, which came first, international distribution, or movies worth international distribution?