Posted: 09/06/1999




by Del Harvey

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Swedish films are often like their food: cold, wet, and far from their natural frozen waters. This police drama is very cold, very efficient in its enactment, and very chilling to watch.

The opening scene is quite disturbing and intentionally confusing. We see, in close-up, a very attractive young woman being handled by an unseen companion. The expression on the woman’s face changes rapidly back and forth from sensual excitement to fear, and it causes a gut-churning reaction for the viewer. Finally she is pushed against a nail in the wall; it is an accident, but the damage is done. And in the few quick scenes following we are shown her hair being washed by her murderer (still unseen), her clothing removed, and her body stuffed unceremoniously into a plastic body bag and taken to be deposited in some nondescript locale.

The next scene is that of our erstwhile anti-hero, Inspector Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgard), inspecting the body at the morgue with an entire accompaniment of police technicians and detectives on hand. There is some intentional confusion in the playing of this scene, as we are meant to think the Inspector knew the young lady and possibly may have had something to do with her death. This leads to a very nice plot twist later in the story.

The investigation into the 15-year-old’s death leads Engstrom and his partner Ousdal to the small village where she lived. Once there they become enmeshed in the local police force’s attempts to ferret out the killer. When the girl’s backpack is discovered next to an abandoned shed, hard-nosed Engstrom uses this as a trap to catch the killer: he goes on the TV with he announcement that they are looking for the girl’s missing backpack since it may hold clues which will identify the girl’s killer. After an interminable wait on the foggy coastside someone appears, grabs the backpack, and disappears inside the shed. The police follow, only to find a hidden escape hatch leading to a tunnel that connects to the beach. There on the foggy beach an accident occurs in pursuing the assumed perpetrator, and Engstrom accidentally kills his partner.

The story spirals inward upon these plot points as the exacting, perfectionist Engstrom’s insomnia grows with each new law he breaks to cover up his initial error. This is combined with the killer’s eventually showing himself to Engstrom, thus multiplying the deceit and guilty actions of the inspector.

INSOMNIA is a very deeply unsettling film. It presents a patriarchal culture where the civilized male can get away with ultraviolent actions and still carry on in the day-to-day world — not unlike our own in many ways. The characters are frightening in their schizophrenic connection to reality, which is to say that you can accept these characters as all too real — you could be standing next to one of the one your morning train ride to work. The violence directed at women is nothing new for serial murder stories, and is based on truth. But the violent acts committed by the men in this film, on both sides of the law, is never balanced with a strong main female character. The one detective who seems to truly understand Engstrom’s errors, and the complexities of the case, is never given any more than a cursory role, in spite of the fact that the story plays up a relationship between the two which is never even remotely explored.

INSOMNIA enters into some difficult territory, but the path chosen by director Erik Skjoldbjærg makes the journey a little too stifling for the audience, at times. You’ve got to be in the right mood to watch this film, or else you may just end up with your own case of sleeplessness.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College.

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