Film Discussion

Throwback 20: Insomnia (1998)

With Summer just around the corner and the effects of the early morning sun streaming through the curtains affecting my sleep, how would you fare if the sun never went down at all?

In Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia, this situation is immediately put upon you in a cabin announcement on the plane that Detectives Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) and Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) are on, flying into Tromsø which is well above the Arctic Circle, to investigate the murder of the 17-year-old Tanja:

“Welcome to the Land of the Midnight Sun”.

With the opening credits that reminded me of Se7en it sets the stage for what is about the follow: disturbing grainy footage of the actual murder taken from a first person perspective, discordant music playing over the top of sharply cut scenes of the aftermath where the killer meticulously washes and cleans the victim to remove any trace of identifiable material.

Engström, a Swedish police officer, has moved to the Norwegian force after being caught in a compromising position with the main witness in one of his cases. Showing us his disdain for the regulations of his profession, willing to follow his instincts and urges rather than the rules. Is it the willingness to do this for good or for himself? As we follow the plight of the detective this picture begins to become clearer. His partner, Vik, it is evident from the outset that he is of more advanced age than Engström, and that his memory isn’t what it used to be. And, unfortunately for him, this proves to be his downfall.

The case itself appears to be nothing out of the ordinary but as the police set a trap to lure out the killer, in a tense and confusing scene in the fog there are multiple police officers and with visibility at a minimum, something was always going to go wrong. And go wrong it does, when a shootout shrouded in the fog results in Vik being shot but not by the killer that they are hunting but in a reaction by Engström himself, as Vik forgot which way Engström asked him to search.

When asked about the failure of the operation to capture the killer and the subsequent death of his partner, Engström is offered a way out by the chief of police: A speculation that it was the killer who shot his partner, and not himself. We are treated to a long pause as Engström considers his options, and formulates a plausible chain of events that would fit into what occurred and he does eventually follow this thread offered to him, weaving a story that loosely fits with the facts but makes him innocent rather than culpable. This scene is further given meaning and context when he is talking about his brother (who died at a young age), but where Engström would make up ever more elaborate, and unbelievable, stories about his demise. As the police would say, he has previous.

AS if the stress and strain of investigating a murder whilst trying to remain innocent of an accidental killing was not complicated enough, there are the effects of the endless daylight to attend to. The repeated scenes of Engström trying to prepare his hotel room to be light-tight, to try to ensure he gets a decent night’s sleep show how much it is affecting him and he is beginning to get desperate about it. The scenes them self are effective although it could have been made slightly more explicit the lack of sleep that he was getting, rather than just a momentary showing of the sun still being up in the middle of the night. Added onto that, the reappearance of Vik in his room in the middle of the bright night, further advances the case for Engström’s descent into mental instability.

Is this insomnia affecting his behaviour? You can bet it is but it is not clear if it is just showing his underlying behaviour and with the breakdown in his mental state he is now unable to mask it in the same way that he could before. He has certainly proved in the past that he is not one to follow rules all the time and he is a very good detective but this brings into view the option that he is so good simply because he is just as unhinged as the people he is trying to catch.

Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg), the main focus of the investigation, is as a crime fiction writer, in tune with what is incorporated in investigations and forensic tests. Holt, being the person in the fog that they were hunting is in possession of the knowledge that it was Engström that killed Vik and therefore has a very powerful bargaining chip. The parallels between Holt and Engström by both in possession of the truth that they are trying to hide, come to an agreement in another story crafted by Engström that ensures both of them appear innocent by pinning the blame on Tanja’s boyfriend.

As we near the climax to this investigation, as Engström’s story fails to pass the test of evidence, Engström realises what he needs to do to keep the truth from coming out and this is when the effects of the insomnia really come to the fore. In some brilliant camera work and choices by the director, we pan around the scenes and see what seems to be Engstrom in more than one place at once, something that we have seen used a few times across the runtime of the film but appear more concentrated in this finale.

Providing a sense of disconnect from reality, that loss of time that can accompany a bout of serious sleep deprivation. Anyone who has been subject to lack of sleep for a period of time will know that feeling of missing chunks of time, a lack of memory and a blurring of events into one another that really does provide that disorientation when trying to recall what has happened. And it is evident here in Engström as he is more distracted, disoriented, and his judgement is called into question more than once.

Director Erik Skjoldbjærg, choosing to keep the attention on how the insomnia is changing the lead detective rather than case developments, means we are invested in Engström’s journey, rather than the outcome of the case. It is his self-preservation that became his strongest trait when his main mental faculties were failing due to the deprivation of sleep, and his convoluted web couldn’t hold up as he weaved it more and more intricately.

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