Insomnia (1997)

*. I’ll confess that when I first saw Insomnia I felt a bit underwhelmed. I like it more today, in part because I think that being underwhelming is a big part of what it’s about. I mean, here’s a movie where the climax has the cop tracking down the bad guy only to have him fall and die by banging his head and then drowning. I was expecting something a little more cathartic.
*. But then you look a little closer and you realize this is a movie that denies release. The key point connecting detective Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) and crime novelist Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg) is that they are loners. Specifically, they are men without women. And this bothers them.
*. Jonas is in trouble after getting caught in a dalliance with a witness in a previous case. He comes on, pretty hard, to a hotel clerk and a high school student (a fellow officer, who tries at one point to catch his eye, has less success in firing a response). Meanwhile, Holt is in hot water because he too has been tempted, disastrously since he turns out to be impotent and has to express his urges in violence. This is their common bond, what allows them to identify with one another in such a peculiar way.
*. When asked how he copes in such a job Jonas replies “You just have to avoid mixing your job and your personal life.” But what personal life does he have? We’re not given a glimpse of any and I suspect that’s partly to suggest that he doesn’t have one. Or at least any more of one than a hack writer who has escaped to the back of beyond so he can be alone and write. These two were made for each other. They are secret sharers.

*. The two don’t actually spend a lot of time together, perhaps because they don’t have to. They understand each other well enough without having to say anything. Note how quickly Jonas picks up on the plot to frame the boyfriend. It’s almost as though he’s imagining Holt, and given his other visions that almost seems a possibility.
*. That reticence makes this part of the plot all the more mysterious. Why is Jonas trying so hard to cover up an accidental shooting? To the point where he feels he has to throw his lot in with Holt and frame the innocent kid. In Christopher Nolan’s inferior remake a lot more effort would be put into explaining all this, but it subtracts by addition.
*. It’s a stylish film, but not in a loud way. Which is surprising because it seems like it should be. All those windows blaring like banks of stadium lights into flaring dissolves. Jonas’s snappy suits. The stark interiors. Even the disturbed editing that upsets our sense of time and space by dropping characters into shots and scenes where we’re not expecting them. All of this should be too much, but that sense of understatement is maintained.
*. The cast is great. I like Gisken Armand as Hilde, tossing out a line to lure Jonas and getting nowhere and then advancing into a professionalism that could destroy him. But best of all are Skarsgård and Floberg, who manage to be weary, haunted, and excitable all at once. Bored men, men alone, and men on the edge. They have dead eyes, in the sense that they don’t provide any windows on a soul. We can sense calculations being made back there, but no feeling.
*. This makes it all the more fitting that we end with the gradual fade to Jonas’s eyes shining in the darkness. Though I though it was a mistake to freeze frame on them for the credit roll. That was a step too far. But it’s one of the few things about the movie I can fault. There was no point doing it over again because they could only make it worse. But they did and they did.

3 thoughts on “Insomnia (1997)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s almost a throwback to American movies of the ’70s. They loved ending on a freeze frame. You rarely see it done today. Or at least I haven’t noticed it.

      I just recently watched the two versions back-to-back and really appreciated this one a lot more. It grows on you. Whereas I sort of liked Nolan’s remake when I first saw it and I like it a lot less now. I’ll post my notes on it tomorrow.

      Reply

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