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INSOMNIA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Stellan Skarsgard, Svelle Anker Ousdal, Maria Bonnevie
Director:  Erik Skjoldbjaerg
Audio:  Dolby Digital Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1, 16x9 Enhanced
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, TV Spot
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  July 27, 1999

Film ***

Insomnia initially intrigued me for two reasons.  One, it was filmed in my ancestral homeland of Norway.  And two, the DVD was Criterion's first ever anamorphic offering.  More on that further down.

This movie is not quite a crime drama and not quite a thriller, but it is both fairly intense and psychological.  Stellan Skarsgard, recently of Good Will Hunting and Deep Blue Sea fame, plays Jonas Engstrom, a Swedish investigator who ends up on assignment in Norway when a young girl is brutally murdered.  Why was he picked to go?  There seems to be a big skeleton in his closet involving him getting intimate with a star witness, though the film doesn't delve too deeply into his past.  Just enough to let us know this is a man fallen from grace.

He's quite an interesting character, in that he's a terrific investigator, but because of his weaknesses, he's not such a good cop.  He's clearly a candidate to unravel, and the fact that he's in a land where the sun never goes down, leaving him unable to sleep, isn't helping.

When he sets a trap for the killer, it goes wrong.  The killer gets away, and in a moment of confusion, he mistakenly kills one of his own men in the fog.  And rather than admit his mistake, he panics and tries to make it look like the killer did it.  But he's the only witness, so now he has to deal with two investigations:  his own, and the one that he's the object of.

Skarsgard is a terrific actor, and watching him grow more and more desperate is both unsettling and fascinating.  I don't know if this film was shot in sequence or not, but you can see, or at lease sense, physical deterioration in him as the lack of sleep and the stress takes their toll.  What he does in his weakest moments are shameful, but are all acts of one who is trying with desperation and futility to maintain control.

Thanks to the terrific setting of Norway, director Skjoldbjaerg has created a very unusual look for a film involving cops and criminals.  There is very little darkness or shadow, and of course, no night scenes, because of the midnight sun.  It helps to emphasize the fact that Engstrom is a man out of his element.  Literally and figuratively, he cannot escape the light.

Video ***1/2

Criterion did a terrific job with their first foray into widescreen enhancement, and DVD fans should be pleased.  This is a clean, sharp crisp transfer, with no grain or artifacts present, and good coloring, considering that the majority of images in the film were shot with the color toned down and with emphasis on blues and grays to convey the cool and misty climate.  Even the foggy scenes are without image breakup.  Objects don't look fuzzy and undefined, they actually look like real, solid images that just happened to be covered by fog.  As an extra indication of how serious Criterion was about the quality of this presentation, it's a dual layered disc, even though the film is only about one and a half hours, and only the trailer and TV spot for extras.  A commendable effort. 

Audio ***

The soundtrack is Dolby surround, and is surprisingly three-dimensional.  At least twice, I paused the movie because I thought there were sounds coming from another room in my house, only to find that it was just the soundtrack to the film.

Features **1/2

The disc contains the original Norwegian trailer and TV spot, both with subtitles, and some nice use of audio and video on the menu screens.

Summary:

With Criterion's first anamorphic disc, and more such titles on the way, fans can finally consider them a top DVD studio without reservation.  If Insomnia is indicative of what their future efforts will produce, there's no reason to lose any more sleep over the issue.