Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
Writer: Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Maria Mathiesen, Sverre Anker Ousdal
Length: 96 min
Label: Criterion Collection
Release Date: July 22, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: Norwegian: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
- Two short films by Erik Skjoldbjærg
- A conversation between Erik Skjoldbjærg and Stellan Skarsgård
- Theatrical Trailer
- Essay by critic Jonathan Romney
At this point, Nordic Noir is a widely understood and developed movement of Scandinavian literature and film. But, while the Scandinavian countries have had a long history within the crime-mystery subgenre, according to Erik Skjoldbjærg, Norway was not producing a significant amount of thrillers in the late ’90s. With this in mind, Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 thriller Insomnia is at the forefront of a movement ready to explode. In their description, The Criterion Collection describes Insomnia’s impact: “the success of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s chilling procedural anticipated the international hunger for Scandinavian noirs and serial-killer fictions.” Originally released on DVD in 1999 by the Criterion Collection, Insomnia has been granted a new life, available now, for the first time ever, on Blu-Ray.
The film’s opening remains one of the most effective pieces to emerge. Shot in 8mm, the opening depicts the methodological murder of 15 year-old Tanja. Stable shots with an immense amount of grain—due to the 8mm camera—give the images a voyeuristic, uncomfortable feel; a feeling that will persist throughout the film. A sense of mystery and intrigued is wrapped neatly with the uneasy feeling that, as viewers, we are seeing something that we should not.
Directly following the open, we are introduced to Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) and Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal). Skjoldbjærg wastes no time setting up the characterization of the two detectives that will go on to shape the film’s driving narrative. Vik is depicted as aging and brittle, fast asleep and leaning against the wide awake Engström. Engström’s ice-cold blue eyes peer outward towards the sun, a sun that will be perpetually present for the entirety of the film. Despite his inexperience, Skjoldbjærg’s brilliantly crafts a simple composition that develops the film’s key elements, elements that will culminate in Engström’s crime: the aging Vik, the sleepless, insomniac Engström, and the omnipresent light. Insomnia is a thriller where the black shadows are replaced with a blinding light, where the only place to hide is in pure daylight.Soon after his introduction, we learn that, after suffering the embarrassment of being caught sleeping with a principle witness in one of his cases, Engström left the Swedish police force to take on a position in Norway. Assigned to Tanja’s case, Engström is quick to set the procedures in motion to track the young girl’s murderer. While the film is arguably part procedural, Skjoldbjærg’s interest in these moments is fleeting. Rather, the scenes serve to drive the film forward. Whereas in the typical procedural the detective will incur difficulties that must be overcome, Engström is able to track the killer with ease. The difficulties come later, when during a sting operation the killer escapes into the safety of the dense fog. Blinded by the fog, Engström accidently shoots his partner Vik (who, as a result of his aged-related lack of memory, headed in the wrong direction), allowing the killer to escape. In order to hide his crime, Engström lies and covers his tracks.
What sets Insomnia apart from its American counterparts—and certainly from Nolan’s 2002 remake—is that Skjoldbjærg makes no attempt to make Engström sympathetic. He may be the film’s central character, but even calling him an anti-hero would appear incorrect. In many ways, Engström is anything but heroic. His actions serve only himself. While it is no easy role to convey Skarsgård plays the part masterfully. His charismatic presence elevates the role above its contemptible core. Without a doubt, this is Skarsgård at his finest. Further, the film manipulates the audience, being unable to believe what we are seeing. In one scene, particularly, Engström appears to molest a 15 year-old girl in his car; but because of the mismatching audio-visual juxtaposition and the strictly POV close-up shot (from the perspective of Engström), we are unable to decipher whether the shot is reality or the result of Engström’s fantasies. Later, we are privy to what appears to be Engström’s vision of Tanja’s dead body resting on a couch. However, because the depiction perfectly matches an image from the film’s opening 8mm sequence, it leaves the question as to how Engström could imagine it, or if it is Engström’s vision at all.In addition to Skarsgård’s performance, the collaboration between Skjoldbjærg and cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen crafts a stunning visual world. Utilizing a cold, blue-color palette, intense whites, and a veneer of dense fog, Insomnia sets itself apart from nearly every other thriller. The exploitation of fog and light, in place of the more standard shadows and fog, is handled in a brilliant manner. In spite of the absence of physical darkness, the film’s thematic darkness is pervading.
As you come to expect with Criterion releases, the video quality of the Insomnia Blu-Ray transfer is impeccable. The colors are crisp and the grain is kept beautifully intact. The 1.85:1 1080p disc is the result of a 4K transfer, and results are phenomenal. There are no age related flaws, such as dirt, debris, or scratches, and there are no signs of digital restoration present. In addition, despite the film’s exploitation of highlights, the film is free from any haloing effects that may otherwise be present.
Similarly, the audio is superb. A full range of tones is present in this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, highlighting Geir Jenssen’s beautiful score. The mix is clean; leaving easily distinguishable dialogue and dynamic, clean sound effects. There are no signs of distortion, damage, hiss, and/or pops present.
To be frank, the included special features are a bit underwhelming. Criterion Collection is typically known for a including an abundance of supplementary features, but for Insomnia we are only granted two of Skjoldbjærg’s early short films, a recent interview between Skjoldbjærg and Skarsgård, a trailer, and an essay by Jonathan Romney. While the shorts offer a nice look into Skjoldbjærg’s career, and offer a chance to see him establish some of the themes that will resurface in Insomnia, neither film pacts the impact of Insomnia. The conversation between Skjoldbjærg and Skarsgård is entertaining and probably the most appreciated of the features. Skarsgård leads the discussion, and in one moment seems to even upset Skjoldbjærg with the revelation that he originally found the script to be bad.
Fans of Euro-crime, neo-noir, mystery, and the police procedural will surely have something to sink your teeth into here. But, Insomnia is first and foremost an intense psychologically driven film and it is because of this that the film shines. Paired with a suitable amount of special features and a stunning transfer (one of Criterion’s best), this Dual Format Blu-Ray/DVD combo is a worthy addition to any genre fan’s library. This is one worth the upgrade.