Screenshot: Insomnia

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s still winter, this week we’re looking back on films set in very cold places.


Insomnia (1997)

It’s hard to tell the worst part of insomnia: the long nights spent awake, thoughts churning too lucidly to sleep, or the dreamy, soporific days, fueled by an extra cup or two of coffee, trying to fake it through work or another conversation. Erik Skjoldbjærg’s feature debut, Insomnia, captures both sides of this hellish coin. This hallucinatory neo-noir served as the basis for Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake, but the 1997 original is a much different beast, leaner and infinitely more lurid. Nolan found room for megawatt performances, helicopter shots, and lush, dark-blue chase scenes, but the original film consists of a permanently damp Stellan Skarsgård stomping around clinically lit, minimalist spaces, his life gradually transforming into a waking nightmare.

The premise is pure potboiler: A grizzled detective is sent to a small town to investigate the death of a teenage girl, eventually getting wrapped up in a game of cat and mouse with the killer. But it’s the setting—above the Arctic Circle, where summer means six months of daylight and winter means six months of night—that starts the filmic pulse racing. Suddenly the trenchcoat-clad men moodily perusing a crime scene, the seedy hookups, the dead-of-night conversations are transformed, filmed in an impressively impassive flat white light. Skjoldbjærg finds a way to set everything in rooms of varying degree of pale blue and off-white, dressing everyone in grays and beiges; the only thing that ever gets in the way of all this devastating clarity is one of the film’s dreamy chase scenes, which takes place in a deep fog.

What initially seems like a procedural becomes something much darker and more probing. There are a few scenes of Skarsgård lying awake at odd hours, taping down light-blocking blinds as his sins mount and circle him in the dead of night. But much of the insomnia is implied, particularly as his grip on reality gets shaky and he seems to be settling into a life without sleep. The notion in crime fiction is so often that the sins committed at night can be uncovered, solved, even made pure by the daylight. But what about crimes committed in unending daylight? What about crimes committed by the people we entrust to solve them? The fact that it’s set during an ostensible summer—everyone is still dressed in sweaters and coats—only adds to the erosion of boundaries. Insomnia doesn’t flip day for night; it renders the difference between them moot, a moral and literal gray area.

Availability: Insomnia is available to rent or purchase digitally through Amazon or iTunes. The Criterion Blu-ray or DVD can also be obtained through Amazon, Netflix, or your local video store/library.

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