RopeofSilicon Movie Club: ‘Insomnia’ (1997)

Ilast watched Christopher Nolan‘s 2002 remake of Insomnia in 2010 when I reviewed the Blu-ray release, and until you voted it a Movie Club selection, I’d actually never seen the Erik Skjoldbjærg-directed original. While both tell the same story in almost the exact same way, there are distinct differences — beyond the fact Nolan’s adaptation runs 22 bloated extra minutes longer — that caught my attention.

Unfortunately, since the narrative of both films runs so close together it’s hard for me to discuss one without discussing the other and not being that big a fan of Nolan’s Insomnia I think these two factors put Skjoldbjærg’s original at a slight disadvantage for my first time viewing.

To begin, I felt Nolan’s Insomnia was too long and as much as the investigation into the murder of a young girl proves intriguing, as does the dynamic between Al Pacino and Robin Williams, I felt the film lost a little once chase scenes and too many on-the-nose moments sapped it of a lot of its tension and character intrigue.

What I liked about Skjoldbjærg’s approach to the characters, beginning with Stellan Skarsgård as Jonas Engström, was the question of what he may or may not be capable of. The back-story on Skarsgard’s character isn’t the same as the one created for Pacino’s. The fact Engström was caught having sex with a witness in one of his cases is different than Pacino’s evidence planting, and it makes a difference in the story.

Pacino’s Will Dormer planted evidence once, would he go along with it again, only this time under different circumstances? Meanwhile, Skarsgard’s Engstrom, rattled after mistakenly killing his partner and unable to sleep as a result of nerves and the constant sunlight, he must now also decide whether he wants to plant evidence to save his own skin while at the same time freeing a known murderer. The stakes are the same, but the psychology is different… at least it was to me.

In Nolan’s film I already knew Dormer was capable of planting evidence, but in Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia I saw a character that slowly began to reveal who he was, or who he might be underneath. In Nolan’s Insomnia I got the impression Pacino’s Dormer wasn’t sure of the decisions he was making, in Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia I’m not convinced Engstrom was sure of anything, least of all himself. Skarsgard’s quiet demeanor and questioning glances had me on my toes and I felt the interplay between his character and Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand) investigating the death of his partner and Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg) were all far more subtle than in the 2002 remake.

None of the characters in Skjoldbjærg’s film reveal their hands fully, there is always something to question. For example, Hilde gives all reason for us to believe she knows Engstrom killed his partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), accident or not. Yet, she is never downright accusatory. Why? Floberg’s performance as Jon Holt was also less sinister than that of Robin Williams, but still creepy enough to want to keep him at arm’s distance.

Finally, I found the cinematography fascinating when you compare the work of Erling Thurmann-Andersen to that of Wally Pfister. Thurmann-Andersen’s work doesn’t have that perfect sheen Pfister’s has. Skjoldbjærg’s film is colder, grittier. Both are claustrophobic, though I would say Nolan’s film is like being wrapped in plastic while Skjoldbjærg’s has the impression of being closed up in a concrete box in the basement. If anything, Thurmann-Andersen’s work reminded me a lot of Jeff Cronenweth’s work with David Fincher on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and another film where Robin Williams played a creeper the same year Nolan’s remake was released, One Hour Photo.

With that I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite shots from the film and open the discussion to you. I will conclude by saying I did enjoy Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia more than Nolan’s for all the reasons mentioned above. I think it leaves avenues open for greater interpretation with regard to the character’s motivations and the morality of their decisions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *