My first love will always be American cinema. It’s what I was raised on and has provided a steady diet of enlightenment, escapism, and guilt-free entertainment. But as I grew and my tastes expanded, I wanted more. My first foray into foreign film, i.e. films with subtitles, was 1980’s The Gods Must Be Crazy. Despite having to get used to reading dialogue on the screen, eleven-year-old me found great joy in this charming tale of a how discarded Coke bottle sends an African villager on a trek to the “civilized world.” In my experience, foreign films tend to be freer to explore issues and characters that would be brushed aside from mainstream American films and their tendency towards black and white situations and “happy endings.”
You will find very little conventional and predictable in 1997’s Insomnia. This thrilling masterpiece from Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg hails from Norway and features Stellan Skarsgard’s best performance as a detective trying to stay one step behind a killer and one step ahead of his colleagues when he makes a grave mistake. Sadly, this film was re-made for American audiences in 2002 when a then-budding Christopher Nolan was riding high off the well-deserved adulation for 2001’s Memento. His take on Insomnia just seemed to highlight the issue with most American cinematic remakes: a need for movie stars (in this instance Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank), the loss of truly deep and dark characterizations and an insatiable desire to wrap everything up neatly. The whole point of 1997’s Insomnia is the only thing worse than committing a crime is having to live with it.
1997’s Insomnia begins with Stellan Skarsgard and his partner (Sverre Anker Ousdahl) summoned to a small foggy town in Norway currently experiencing “Polar Night.” It’s a phenomenon in many northern areas around the world where there is no darkness anywhere from 30 days to six months, and the light of day is seemingly perpetual. These officers are in town to assist the murder investigation of 17-year-old girl. The killer has left zero clues, having thoroughly bathed and washed his victim which leaves the local police baffled. As for Skarsgard, we learn through casual conversations that he is a brilliant investigator but with a checkered past that even includes being recently reprimanded for sleeping with a witness in a high-profile case.
The police come across the victim’s backpack and Skarsgard plans a trap for the killer. He holds a press conference stating that they are still looking for the victim’s backpack which may contain vital information. Being that the killer was so meticulous in disposing of the body in the first place, Skarsgard correctly guesses they will return. A stakeout is set but when the killer makes uses of an unknown hatch, chaos ensues, and a panicked chase commences. In the cover of fog, Skarsgard sees a figure he believes to be the killer and fires. When the fog clears, we see he has killed his partner. It was an honest, if hasty, mistake but Skarsgard immediately realizes that based on his previous record he is done as a policeman.
Once the police gather, Skarsgard (the only apparent witness) claims it was the killer that shot his partner. A comprehensive manhunt develops for this apparent “cop killer” and Skarsgard begins his own cover up to make his story, including ballistics, adds up. This film takes a truly dark turn when Skarsgard is approached by the killer (Bjorn Floberg, in a performance of delicate menace). He saw Skarsgard kill his partner and he offers a proposal: he will stay silent on what he saw if Skarsgard will help him frame the victim’s hot-headed boyfriend for his crime of passion. What started as an accidental shooting for Skarsgard soon delves into framing an innocent man, despite staring the guilty party right in the face.
The remainder of the film finds Skarsgard trying to placate a murderer while avoiding the frequent inquiries of a local detective (a very effective Gisken Armand) who doesn’t like where the evidence in the shooting is leading her. All the while the “insomnia” of the title is embodied by Skarsgard not being able to sleep both figuratively because of his conscience and literally because of the unending daylight in this sleepless hollow. The film’s conclusion is right, as Skarsgard gets away with his crime but knows he will be haunted for his remaining days.
The performances are excellent. Skarsgard is every shade of black and white. We watch him work brilliantly early on, then watch as he thinks and re-thinks every angle in the name of self-preservation. He has very few redeeming qualities as we also watch him essentially molest the murder victim’s underage best friend and seeming sexually assault the local innkeeper, in separate scenes. The ending may seem like there are no repercussions to his many vile actions but maybe living with himself is the cruelest fate of all.
Additionally, Bjorn Floberg is quietly creepy. Unlike the Robin Williams performance from the 2002 remake which quickly devolved into over-the-top theatrics, Floberg does a 180. His character is a devious murderer and yet the face he shows the world is so mute and genial. We in the audience are waiting for a monster to rear its head but instead we get a truly creepy manifestation of evil: the evil that lies next door behind good manners and quiet reflection.
So, while not all remakes are inferior (I would count The Birdcage, Three Men and Baby and The Magnificent Seven as some of my favorites), often a lot does get lost in the translation or more aptly put in the adaptation. American audiences may seem to be slightly lower on the intellectual scale, which would explain the success of the Transformers series to me, but maybe that’s just American film producers often appealing to the lowest common denominator. In the end, the original source material should always be reviewed. In the case of 1997’s Insomnia, it’s a mandate.