Like most Americans, my first exposure to Erik Skjoldbjerg's Insomnia (1997) was via Criterion's 1999 DVD; through no small coincidence, it was around the time Christopher Nolan's 2002 remake hit theaters (but, for the life of me, I can't remember which one I actually saw first). Either way, I'm glad that both exist and, unlike the wide difference in quality between most originals and remakes, I can't objectively choose one over the other. But enough about the different versions: Skjoldbjerg's Insomnia is a fascinating little slice of Norwegian cinema, full of fantastic visuals, memorable characters and a terrific core story about one man's guilt after an accidental crime. That man is Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgard), a Swedish inspector called to Norway to investigate the murder of student Tanja Lorentzen (Maria Mathiesen). Along with his partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) and Norwegian police, Engstrom sets a trap to catch the suspected murderer at his remote cabin.
After their cover is blown, the suspect flees and, while chasing him through foggy, treacherous terrain, Engstrom mistakenly shoots and kills his partner from a distance. As local police are, by law, forbidden from carrying guns without a permit, the armed Engstrom hastily conceals his weapon. It's assumed that Vik was shot by the suspect and Engstrom goes along with this story, not realizing someone actually saw the shooting. From there, it's no rest for the wicked: Engstrom has to live with this guilt, working double-time to cover up his mistakes while attempting to solve the murder of Tonja. All the while, northern Norway's midnight sun ensures that there's little darkness for either murderer to hide in, cleverly inverting the usual atmosphere of classic Hollywood film noir. Try as he might, Engstrom can't keep light from creeping into his hotel room.
Veteran actor Stellan Skarsgard carries much of Insomnia's emotional weight with ease, turning in a fine performance as the skilled detective absolutely ravaged by guilt from his past mistakes. We catch glimpses of Engstrom's difficulty to control impulses, from his encounter with the lead witness on an earlier case to a heart-pounding car ride with Tonja's friend Froya (Marianne O. Ulrichsen). He's a deeply troubled man that, in most cases, has little trouble concealing emotions in front of his colleagues...including Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), who's put in charge of investigating Vik's murder. Still, the next few days prove to be the most stressful of Engstrom's life: his paranoia increases as Hagen digs deeper into Vik's case, the investigation of a lead suspect in Tonja's case (Bjorn Floberg) deepens as well, and sleepless nights ensure that our weary protagonist (or is it co-antagonist?) never gets a fresh start. Insomnia remains an unsettling gem of modern filmmaking, continuously keeping viewers off-balance and planted in the shoes of a man beaten by his own impulsive decisions.
As mentioned earlier, if you're at all familiar with Erik Skjoldbjerg's debut film, it's probably because of Criterion's 1999 DVD or Christopher Nolan's 2002 remake...but either way, 15 years is a long wait between home video releases. New for 2014 is Criterion's second attempt at bringing the original Insomnia to a wider audience, a "Dual Format" release that stands as one the last such packages offered by the studio. The Blu-ray yields massive improvements over Criterion's original DVD, from a terrific new 4K restoration to a handful of new extras. Overall, it's a long-overdue release that fans will certainly enjoy.
Video & Audio Quality
Not surprisingly, 15 years makes a lot of difference. Criterion's 1999 DVD marked the studio's very first use of anamorphic enhancement and, for its time, the visual presentation was quite good. But this new 1.85:1, 1080p transfer (sourced from a brand new 4K digital restoration) completely surpasses it in every possible way. Image detail is absolutely fantastic, shadow detail is substantially improved and the film's muted palette feels much more natural (if not slightly colder). The picture is noticeably brighter as well, but not unnaturally so. Most impressive, though, is the consistent layer of fine grain that really gives Insomnia a true film-like appearance. The numerous scenes of fog and overcast weather are handled quite nicely as well, never succumbing to compression artifacts or excessive noise. Overall, this is a night-and-day improvement and one of the studio's best-looking discs, as far as I'm concerned. Die-hard fans and new viewers will be floored in equal measure.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
The restored DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track, with very few exceptions, does what it can with just two channels. Insomnia is obviously a dialogue-driven film, albeit one with a potent atmosphere that uses interesting effects and textures to emphasize Engstrom's dissolving mental state. Geir Jenssen's largely electronic score also sounds full and dynamic when it kicks in, adding another interesting layer of texture to the film. Still, this is a front-loaded mix by design and, while the surrounds are missed on occasion, there's plenty of channel separation and even a few interesting pan effects (such as the climactic pier chase, for example). Optional English subtitles are offered during the film and extras for translation purposes.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
As usual, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate on both formats. This two-disc set is locked for Region A/1 players only; unlike the majority of their soon-to-be-extinct "Dual-Format" releases, it's packaged in their typical stocky Blu-ray case with overlapping hubs. The accompanying Booklet
features a new essay by film critic Jonathan Romney.
Not much, but we get three new extras (as opposed to Criterion's 1999 DVD
, which only included a Trailer
that returns here) and most of them are of good quality. The highlight is a newly-recorded Interview
with Erik Skjoldbjerg and Stellan Skarsgard (21 minutes) recorded in Olso earlier this year. Both participants share personal memories and other retrospective thoughts on the now 17 year-old film. Stellan Skarsgard is very frank (almost amusingly so) and acts as moderator most of the time; not surprising, since he'd been in films for decades before Skjoldbjerg debuted with Insomnia
. Overall, this is an interesting chat that's over much too soon; I know I'm not alone in wishing they'd recorded a full-length commentary.
Also here are two Short Films directed by Skjoldbjerg during his time at the National Film School in London. Near Winter (Norwegian, 33 minutes) is the bleak tale of an aging Norwegian farmer visited by his nephew and English girlfriend. He suffers from a debilitating eye disease and, despite the couple's willingness to help, stubbornly clings to manual labor as winter approaches. Close to Home (English, 32 minutes) is far closer in tone to Insomnia: an English author comes to the aid of a young girl and is later accused of raping her. Despite professing his innocence, he's obviously a troubled individual who struggles with guilt and, without question, portions of the evidence make him an obvious suspect. Both short films are well worth a look for very different reasons; the former includes burnt-in English subtitles for translation purposes only.
No matter if you prefer Christopher Nolan's 2002 remake or this imported original, Insomnia features a fantastic core story about guilt and its effect on those with something to hide. Director Erik Skjoldbjerg makes a fantastic debut with this 1997 film and, in his capable hands, transforms what was originally a conventional cop story into an unsettling, well-constructed thriller that leaves a lasting impression. Stellan Skarsgard carries most of the emotional weight in one of his strongest performances, but it's just one piece of what makes Insomnia work so well. Criterion's Blu-ray easily surpasses their 1999 DVD, serving up a fantastic A/V presentation (including a new 4K restoration) and three appropriate new extras. So whether you own Criterion's DVD or have yet to see the original Insomnia, this is money well spent. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.