RopeofSilicon Movie Club: 'Insomnia' (1997)

Bjørn Floberg and Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Bjørn Floberg and Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia

I last watched Christopher Nolan's 2002 remake of Insomnia in 2010 when I reviewed the Blu-ray release, and until you voted it a Movie Club selection, I'd actually never seen the Erik Skjoldbjærg-directed original. While both tell the same story in almost the exact same way, there are distinct differences -- beyond the fact Nolan's adaptation runs 22 bloated extra minutes longer -- that caught my attention.

Unfortunately, since the narrative of both films runs so close together it's hard for me to discuss one without discussing the other and not being that big a fan of Nolan's Insomnia I think these two factors put Skjoldbjærg's original at a slight disadvantage for my first time viewing.

To begin, I felt Nolan's Insomnia was too long and as much as the investigation into the murder of a young girl proves intriguing, as does the dynamic between Al Pacino and Robin Williams, I felt the film lost a little once chase scenes and too many on-the-nose moments sapped it of a lot of its tension and character intrigue.

What I liked about Skjoldbjærg's approach to the characters, beginning with Stellan Skarsgård as Jonas Engström, was the question of what he may or may not be capable of. The back-story on Skarsgard's character isn't the same as the one created for Pacino's. The fact Engström was caught having sex with a witness in one of his cases is different than Pacino's evidence planting, and it makes a difference in the story.

Pacino's Will Dormer planted evidence once, would he go along with it again, only this time under different circumstances? Meanwhile, Skarsgard's Engstrom, rattled after mistakenly killing his partner and unable to sleep as a result of nerves and the constant sunlight, he must now also decide whether he wants to plant evidence to save his own skin while at the same time freeing a known murderer. The stakes are the same, but the psychology is different... at least it was to me.

In Nolan's film I already knew Dormer was capable of planting evidence, but in Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia I saw a character that slowly began to reveal who he was, or who he might be underneath. In Nolan's Insomnia I got the impression Pacino's Dormer wasn't sure of the decisions he was making, in Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia I'm not convinced Engstrom was sure of anything, least of all himself. Skarsgard's quiet demeanor and questioning glances had me on my toes and I felt the interplay between his character and Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand) investigating the death of his partner and Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg) were all far more subtle than in the 2002 remake.

None of the characters in Skjoldbjærg's film reveal their hands fully, there is always something to question. For example, Hilde gives all reason for us to believe she knows Engstrom killed his partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), accident or not. Yet, she is never downright accusatory. Why? Floberg's performance as Jon Holt was also less sinister than that of Robin Williams, but still creepy enough to want to keep him at arm's distance.

Finally, I found the cinematography fascinating when you compare the work of Erling Thurmann-Andersen to that of Wally Pfister. Thurmann-Andersen's work doesn't have that perfect sheen Pfister's has. Skjoldbjærg's film is colder, grittier. Both are claustrophobic, though I would say Nolan's film is like being wrapped in plastic while Skjoldbjærg's has the impression of being closed up in a concrete box in the basement. If anything, Thurmann-Andersen's work reminded me a lot of Jeff Cronenweth's work with David Fincher on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and another film where Robin Williams played a creeper the same year Nolan's remake was released, One Hour Photo.

With that I'll leave you with a few of my favorite shots from the film and open the discussion to you. I will conclude by saying I did enjoy Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia more than Nolan's for all the reasons mentioned above. I think it leaves avenues open for greater interpretation with regard to the character's motivations and the morality of their decisions.

Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia
Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia


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  • Baca

    I apologize for continuing on your comparison between this film and the remake, but there is just one aspect that I cannot get out of my head. I, like most it seems, saw the Nolan version first as well and did so without knowing that it was a remake. One of the main issues with that film for me is how Nolan rushes through some of the more interesting ideas of the film, and still makes it feel bloated. For example, I think that one of the most interesting aspects of the story is the psychological meltdown of the protagonist seeded by not being able to sleep due to the constant sunlight. I felt like Nolan rushed past this so he could get to his reveals and cinematic moments (an issue I have with more of his recent work as well). I think in the original Skjoldbjærg allows the audience to wallow more in these moments of insanity so that when the reveals do happen we can see them more clearly though the eyes of the protagonist.

  • Timothy

    Let me start off by saying that I enjoyed this film more than the Nolan version. I love Nolan, but his film felt too long and glossy for a film of that subject matter. The thing i loved about this version is that it didn't feel like a film. It was gritty and I could really feel Skarsgård's character deteriorating after days of unending sunshine.

    I agree with Brad, having seen the Nolan film I am definitely inclined to make comparisons. I'll focus on this film for now, however. I really enjoyed the way the film used sunlight to create an unsettling atmosphere. Most thrillers and dramas rely on darkness and shadow to be appropriately unsettling, whereas this film does the exact opposite. The constant light is genius for making the film unsettling, and even slightly suspenseful.

    Skarsgård is terrific as the worn down detective. He isn't afraid to cheat and not play by the book to get his man. He's also not afraid to blame someone else to protect himself. As his insomnia gets worse, he gets worse. The final "chase" scene is not really a chase seen. He is too tired to protect himself, he just keeps going. He gets the killer by accident, when he falls through planks of rotted wood.

    Now I'll compare it to the Nolan film. Pacino and Skarsgård are miles apart. While the former shows all his turmoil on the outside, the later keeps it all brewing inside of himself. It never explodes, just fizzles out. Williams is certainly creepy, but the dynamic between the two characters is not as unsettling as in this film. Here, Skarsgård and Jon Holt almost seem like they could be friends.

    They are similar in many respects, but one is "good" and the other is "evil", only that is not the case. Here, Skarsgård is not good, he kills a good man and lies about it. Holt may not be as evil, if you believe his accident story. In the remake, it is more strictly defined. I found that the original wasn't afraid to delve into darker areas, especially compared to the remake.

    In this film, Skarsgård moves his hand up a girls leg to get information from her. In the remake Pacino drives erratically. The original is much darker and more effective. Overall, I found this film to be a terrific low-key thriller, and I really enjoyed it.

  • James

    Even as a proud Norwegian, I felt Nolan made a better film. I wholeheartedly disagree that Skjoldbjærg film is more subtle, I feel quite the opposite.

    • Brad Brevet

      Interesting, care to expand on that?

  • Gautam

    Insomnia had so much more potential to end up as one the great mystery thrillers. But as the story progresses, it slowly but surely falls into the usual catch me if you can cliche trap. I liked the claustrophobic setting, felt it worked rightly for this kind of thriller though the film becomes more genial as it progresses. Undoubtedly it's Nolan's weakest work, though only by his own standards otherwise it's still a well made thriller. Somehow I feel he could have lent more originality to the screenplay than what he did. It's also one of the films where you hardly can identify it to be Nolan film since it lacks many of his trademarks.
    One of issues which I had with Nolan's version is the wrong casting of Robin Williams as Finch. Not that he isn't good but only that he looked far innocuous to me to commit the crime. I had difficulty in accepting him as the cunning, conniving villain. Norwegian Insomnia is better in this regard where I had no issues with casting of the villain.
    Brad, did you also have any trouble accepting Williams as villain in Nolan's version ?

    • Mikey

      Now this is interesting, because Williams's role is my favorite thing about Nolan's film. While Floberg plays his part fine, he doesn't bring anything new to the table. Williams brings a reserved creepiness and sly cockiness to his role. A line that sticks out to me from the remake is "You only know I did it because I told you." Williams and Pacino really go toe-to-toe while Floberg seems inconsequential when compared to Skarsgard.

      • Gautam

        Williams played it just fine, no issues with that but as I said somehow his looks belied the character that he was playing. Though I understand why was been cast, precisely due to his innocuous, unsuspecting looks. That kind of thing works if you reveal the suspense right at the end of the film but here, since his identity is revealed half-way through the film he has to carry the viciousness for the rest of it. And it's here that I had a hard time accepting him as really smart conniving villain. Even during the last sequence, during all that tussle, he looked too fragile to give the fight that he did.

  • Mikey

    I happen to prefer Nolan's work, but in my opinion the two movies have two very different goals. While Nolan's plays as more of a cat and mouse game between Pacino and Williams, Skjoldbjaerg's is much more of a character study of Engstrom. In Nolan's you never forget the murder being investigated. Here the investigation is just one piece of what we deal with. Skarsgard does great work and this is some of the best acting I've seen from him, but the film as a whole never really added up for me. I guess when it comes down to it, I would have preferred a character study of this Engstrom character, but without the sleep deprivation. He's a fascinating enough character without needing to add the extra question of "Is he just doing it because he's so tired or is this really how this guy operates?" Anyway Nolan's film is a straight procedural with a few twists that works fine. This film was far more ambitious, I just never felt it all added up.

    Also kudos to Brad for this wonderful line: "Nolan's film is like being wrapped in plastic while Skjoldbjaerg's has the impression of being closed up in a concrete box in the basement." I'm not entirely sure why the box has to be in the basement, but that makes it all the better.

  • Josh Z

    I have not seen this movie (saw and own the remake) but because of this interesting discussion I am going to seek it out and watch it. Normally I would stay away due to spoilers but I know its pretty much almost shot for shot the same as Nolan's but the tone and feel differences you are all talking about is intriguing to me. So I wanted to thank you Brad and everyone else. I will be checking it out hopefully soon. Keep this up please I love it.

  • JaneD

    I found this movie on YouTube but it was cut up into 15-minute chunks. I did not find this very conducive to viewing the movie but it was the only way I could get to see it. I have seen the Nolan’s film but it was probably 4-5 years ago. I recall it being too long – especially the third act. But, I did like the cat-and-mouse between Pacino and Williams.

    What stuck me about this movie is that Engstrom’s character was a bit of a cocky creep right from the get-go. He gives up waiting for his luggage at the airport nonchalantly (it will find me), he runs a red light, and then there is the story about him having sex with a witness back in Stokholm. I thought that Vik was the calmer and more pleasant of the two. Maybe that was their good cop/bad cop dynamic showing through. Finally, Engstrom took advantage of the teenage witness in order to coerce the truth from her. This action made him out to as someone that bends the rules to get what he wants.

    It was an interesting character study of Engstrom falling apart after his shooting of Vik. His inability to sleep was not purely due to the light, but also his ‘visions’ of his dead partner and his mind playing tricks on him brought on by his guilt. The editing in the film gave the impression that there were moments when Engstrom seemed to loose track of time due to his extreme fatigue.

    Why didn’t Hilde turn him in? Perhaps if she did, it would have put the closing of the case in jeopardy. Also, I think that she was a bit smitten with Engstrom in the beginning. There is some subtle flirtation in one of the early scenes when the two of them examine the murder victim’s room. Maybe she couldn’t bring herself to turn him in. I think she realized that he was going to be haunted with his deed for the rest of his life.

  • Susan

    While not a huge fan of the film, I do quite like it. What I find odd, and I don't know if this just me, but I find Skarsgard much creepier in this movie than Pacino in the Nolan version. While Pacino committed a crime with the evidence planting, there's something dingier and perhaps more guttural about Skarsgard's character. He feels less like a good guy doing his best than an average man who just so happens to have a job where he does good things.

    • Brad Brevet

      No, it's not just you, I agree completely with your take on Skarsgard.

      • Susan

        Glad to know I am not from crazy town.