I’ve been watching bleak and moody Danish noir lately, so I thought I’d change it up and watch some bleak and moody Norwegian noir instead, namely this 1997 thriller with Stellan Skarsgard.
Skarsgard plays Jonas Engstrom, a disgraced Swedish detective who is called in to investigate a murder of a young woman in Tromsø, a city above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway where the sun doesn’t set for months in summer. The movie begins with a disturbing montage of the murder, with the killer leaving no trace and even carefully washing the girl’s hair before dumping her body. So far so yet another small-town dead girl mystery, but then the movie goes and throws a curve when Engstrom’s plan to trap the murderer goes terribly wrong. I won’t spoil it but I’ll just say that the sunlight streaming through Engstrom’s hotel window at night is not just a quirk of the film’s setting, but a manifestation of his guilt.
From that point on Insomnia unfolds more like a psychological study rather than a conventional procedural, as Engstrom becomes both the hunter and the hunted and his life transforms into a walking sleep-deprived nightmare. The line between real and imaginary becomes blurred, making it hard to say whether certain sequences only exist in the detective’s fevered mind. Even though his misdeed is an honest mistake, Engstrom is hardly a sympathetic character and it’s to Skarsgard’s credit that he remains a compelling protagonist to follow. I haven’t seen the 2002 remake by Christopher Nolan with Al Pacino (the only Nolan film I haven’t watched yet), but I’m willing to bet that it softened its version of Engstrom considerably.
The look of the film, with its muted palette of cold blues and browns and the harsh light of the midnight sun, is a crucial ingredient and so is the Norwegian landscape, especially during the tense chase sequence set in the misty wilderness early in the film. It’s remarkable how menacing never-ending broad daylight can be, considering that most crime thrillers favour the inherent threat of the dark and the shadows.