Saturday, May 3, 2014

Insomnia (1997)

Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg                                Writers: Nikolaj Frobenius & Erik Skjoldbjærg
Film Score: Geir Jenssen                                Cinematography: Erling Thurmann-Andersen
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Gisken Armand, Bjørn Floberg and Sverre Anker Ousdal

For those of you like me, who loved the remake with Al Pacino and perhaps didn’t even know it was a remake, the original Insomnia makes for a fascinating comparison. Of course anything with Stellan Skarsgård in it is worth watching. Ever since his performance in Good Will Hunting he has maintained a regular presence in American films. He had been given some small roles in a few Hollywood films before that one, but the Matt Damon--Ben Affleck drama was really his breakout, and he followed it up with another good role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad the same year. One interesting connection between the two versions of Insomnia is that Robin Williams, who worked with Skarsgård in Good Will Hunting, would go on to star in the remake with Pacino.

The film begins with homicide detectives Stellan Skarsgård and Sverre Anker Ousdal flying up to Tromsø in Norway, above the Arctic Circle, to investigate a murder. Skarsgård goes immediately to the morgue to see the body of the girl, Maria Mathiesen. Her boyfriend, Bjørn Moan, is the obvious suspect, but she also had a closet full of expensive clothing that neither of them could have afforded. So they know that she was involved with someone else and, when they find her backpack, they plant it near where he body was found in order to see if they can lure the killer in. They do, but along with the killer comes a dense fog rolling in off the ocean and when they give chase everything becomes confused. One of the local police is shot in the leg by the killer and Skarsgård goes after him. Suddenly the killer appears out of the fog and Skarsgård shoots him in his tracks, only to find out when he turns him over that it’s his partner. But what is initially tragic, turns criminal when he blames the shooting on the murderer, never realizing that now the murderer has something he can use to manipulate him.

The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Skarsgård and the killer, Bjørn Floberg, to see if he will risk being exposed in order to bring him to justice. At this point, viewers making the comparison between the two films will see the major difference in the remake. That film has Pacino in the Skarsgård role, under investigation from internal affairs back home. His partner knows that he planted evidence to convict a known killer but, unable to discern if his partner will give him up in questioning, the accident becomes impossible to confess to without looking as if Pacino tried to silence him. Watching the Norwegian film it becomes clear that that particular subplot is unnecessary because the protagonist is forced into more illegal activity because of his mistake without the added pressure of the internal affairs investigation. The other thing that this film benefits from a lot is the lack of the Hilary Swank character. Instead, Gisken Armand plays the pathologist who helps Skarsgård with the investigation. She’s more his age and there’s less of a relationship between the characters.

The film’s title comes from the fact that it is Summer in the north and the sun never sets. Skarsgård can’t sleep and he gradually begins to hallucinate his dead partner, the murdered girl, and gradually deteriorates as his lack of sleep increases. Director Erik Skjoldbjærg has a unique style where he attempts to emulate Skarsgård’s mental state. The actor comes in from one side of the frame and then reappears from the other side. Or time lapses forward while the camera is panning through a room. It’s an interesting effect. But the primary difficulty with the film is the elliptical style of story telling. I’m not sure if I hadn’t seen the remake first that I would fully understand what was going on. Unlike the remake, little of the investigation is verbalized as it is happening. It’s a more intimate film, with a small cast and just a few exteriors. But the exteriors, especially in the finale, are great. In the end I’m actually glad I saw the later film first because it gave me a lot more appreciation for this one. Insomnia is a nice showcase for Stellan Skarsgård and worth checking out for that alone.

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