Home Video Hovel- Insomnia, by Tyler Smith
At the heart of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia is a mystery. At first, it would seem to be who is responsible for the death of a 17-year-old girl. And while we are invested in finding that out, the real question is what drives the main character. The more our protagonist investigates the case, the more he tries to cover up his mistakes, the guiltier he becomes. Until finally by the end of the film he is so racked with guilt and self hatred that he seems barely able to function, either physically or emotionally.
A horrible crime has been committed in a small Norwegian city and a Swedish detective and his partner been brought in to solve the case. They’re a good team and make quick work of trapping the culprit. However, as the authorities attempt to chase him down, the detective accidentally shoots and kills his own partner. He is perfectly willing to take responsibility, until he is allowed an opportunity to blame it on the suspect. After a moment’s hesitation, he does.
We’re not really sure why he opts to lie. It was most certainly an accident, and an understandable one at that. There was no recklessness or negligence on his part. So why does he duck responsibility? We never really know.
This more than anything is what fascinated me. And this is what makes Insomnia feel less like a conventional modern thriller and more like a film noir. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily look like one, as the film takes place during the time of year when the sun never sets. Gone are the shadows of The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past. Here, there is nowhere to hide. When the detective needs to swap out one bullet for another, he finds a stray dog, shoots it in an alley, and digs out the bullet. This may occur in the middle of the night, but it’s in broad daylight.
It would seem that it is this constant light that causes the insomnia of the film’s title, but it’s much more than that. Like many film noir anti-heroes, the detective’s biggest hurtle is his own guilty conscience. He can’t escape it; even the release of sleep eludes him.
But, then, what exactly is it that is making him feel so guilty? Is it the accidental death of his partner, or the lie that relieved him of any consequences? Perhaps eventually, the two are indistinguishable. We all want to believe that there is a price to be paid when things go wrong, even accidentally. Even if we are the ones to pay it, many of us are willing to do so, because that provides the balance that we need in order to make sense of the world. Without it, we can go spiraling off in any direction, as the detective soon discovers.
His moral compass compromised, the detective makes a series of bizarre choices. In the midst of his investigation, he attempts to strike up a romance with the desk clerk of his hotel. As the two have a pleasant talk, and soon begin to kiss, he comes on far too strong, scaring her away. This scene has the feel of an attempted rape, and we’re left wondering exactly how this happened.
This is the real mystery behind the film. While it has the elements of a thriller, it really feels more like a character piece; a psychological portrait of a man coming apart at the seams. We don’t know why he does what he does, and we start to wonder if he knows himself.
By the end of the film, the case is solved and all is right with the world. Our hero leaves the city, perhaps thinking that he can now leave his own wrongdoing behind. But in a haunting last shot, we see that this is not the end of his ordeal; it is only the beginning.
Insomnia is a very effective film that can often feel very frustrating. But that frustration doesn’t prevent us from investing in what is happening. We see desperate characters trying to justify their own actions, both to others, but also, more importantly, to themselves. And, like the best film noir, they fail to do so. Instead, they only confirm that they have damned themselves to a life of self-doubt and self-hatred. It’s an engrossing film that demands almost as much of the audience as it does of its protagonist.