I've been suffering from terrible insomnia. In dishonor of my frequent affliction, I've turned off the Roy Acuff (note to self: Roy Acuff is haunting brilliance but he does not make me go to sleep...my mind wanders to birds and night trains and murder). So in went Erik Skjoldbjaerg's "Insomnia," the original and better picture (Christopher Nolan re-made it with Al Pacino and Robin Williams). Not only does the movie put me in touch with my depressive Swedish roots, but it reminds me why I revere Stellan Skarsgård. I'm re-posting my original take...fresh words coming soon.
Film noir is characterized by certain essential ingredients: the duality of a man's tormented soul; expressionistic black-and-white lighting; dusty rays of sunlight barely peeking through thick venetian blinds in a private detective's office; Barbara Stanwyck; Humphrey Bogart; Raymond Chandler. For hardcore purists, noirish films such as John M. Stahl's Technicolor melodrama Leave Her to Heaven, Raoul Walsh's western Pursued and Alexander MacKendrick's gloriously talky, Clifford Odets-scripted Sweet Smell of Success do not fit into the formula. The settings aren't right; the stylistics are off. But that's just nit-picking academic/nerd soulessness.
And so, despite the stylistic and thematic tenets that unify the genre, it need not conform to its literal meaning of "black film." As in the aforementioned films, black can be Gene Tierney's heart, black can be a Spanish-American-War veteran, black can be a wicked gossip columnist. Nowhere is this so provocatively demonstrated than in Swedish director Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Insomnia, a picture that proves that light can obscure as much as it reveals.
After a jarring opening sequence -- the artistically lyrical murder of a young woman -- Insomnia begins with deceptive simplicity. Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a Swedish detective, and his partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), are brought to Norway to investigate the slaying. Stumping local authorities, the proficient killer has left little clues -- he even shampooed the girl's hair after her death (kinky clean). Hence the need for Jonas, who, though caught in "intimate conversation" with a witness in his last case, is considered the best homicide detective in the field.
Using the victim's backpack as a lure, Jonas entices the murderer to the shed where he committed the crime. An easy trap, but not too easy. The criminal sees his pursuers and flees. During a confusing chase through a thick Norwegian fog, Jonas shoots a figure he presumes to be the wanted man. Unfortunately, it's his partner, who dies before his very eyes. To avoid getting busted for his blunder, Jonas covers up the crime, then must make a disturbing pact with the person who knows the truth: the killer himself.
What happens next pushes the film into the territory of a noir thriller wrapped inside a morality tale wrapped inside a character study of a man plagued by neurotic and sociopathic decay. Rather than simply rely on the standard methods of a crime story (which Nolan did to a certain degree with his re-make), Insomnia indulges the viewer with scenes inside Jonas's disturbed, haunted head. An insomniac, Jonas constantly battles with the useless shades covering the window of his hotel room. He cannot stand the light. Stuck in the throes of a blinding Arctic summer, Jonas becomes more and more agitated and, without his partner around to keep him in check, outright despicable. He tampers with and plants evidence and displays a selfish and altogether conflicted personality.
Yet because of his ambiguity, I cannot hate him. He's far too human. Despite his icy exterior, he's filled with a feverish lust (insomnia can bring on odd rushes of sexual longing at the strangest moments). Such lust emerges in two situations where he mistakes innocent flirtation for something much more significant than it really is. On the way to a crime scene, a teenage witness allows him to stick his hand between her legs, but the moment, not surprisingly hot and forbidden and exciting for a moment, rapidly sours. Of course. And then, while willingly receiving a pass from a pretty hotel receptionist, Jonas takes things too far by roughly biting at her breasts and her body -- she runs away terrified. He blows that one too. Yearning for more, only to be repelled, he is left a broken-down, dirty old man. A creepy lecher, and yet, we feel sorry for him.
Much of this lies in Skarsgård's complexity. Repressed and unctuous yet oddly handsome and sickly swaggering, he gives a performance so compelling that one could easily picture him as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Skjoldbjaerg did right in casting Skarsgård, for the director's vision of a man being suffocated by light would not have worked with a predictably "disturbing" actor. Skjoldbjaerg also did right by not making his neo-noir a typically pedestrian display of expressionistic shadowing to reveal the dualities of a man's soul (how many times have we heard that?). He instead creates a world of pale yellows that envelop his character like a humiliating urine-stained sheet a terrible mother would shame her son with. A sickly, stifling and embarrassing world that darkness can't obscure. Insomnia is a work of blinding brilliance.