Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Insomnia

By Russell Smith

DECEMBER 14, 1998: 

D: Erik Skjoldbjaerg; with Stellan Skarsgard, Marie Bonnevie, Bjorn Floberg, Sverre Anker Ousdal. (Norwegian with English subtitles.) (Not Rated, 97 min.)

So far, "film blanc" is still more of a cute little movie-critics' conceit than a bona fide movie genre. However, this terrific Norwegian psych-thriller does share with films as diverse as Smilla's Sense of Snow and Fargo an odd, disorienting feel caused by seeing dark deeds take place in broad daylight against a backdrop of stark, dazzling winter landscapes. Insomnia is the first shot out of the box for young Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjaerg, and it's a real stunner. Not so much a murder mystery as a Crime and Punishment-style story of guilt-driven emotional breakdown, it draws heavily upon the classic noir tradition of blurring lines between the moral positions of the "good" and "bad" guys. The hero is Jan, a Swedish cop known equally for his brilliant detective work and shaky ethics. So renowned are his sleuthing skills that when Norwegian police hit a wall in investigating a teenage girl's murder (the killer has scrubbed her entire body to eliminate clues), they hire him as a special consultant on the case. True to form, Jan quickly devises a clever trap for the suspect. But while chasing the perp, he accidentally shoots and kills his own partner, then compounds the ghastly error by trying to hide his guilt. This decision appears to be typical of Jan, a weak-willed character for whom the low road is the default path in most moral quandaries. Once the cover-up is on, the story's focus shifts away from Jan's pursuit of the killer to his own slow crackup in the face of a guilty conscience and the growing suspicions of fellow detective Ane (Marie Bonnevie). As the walls close in on Jan (at least in his own mind), he lies sweating in bed, denied sleep by the relentless midnight sun pouring through and around the flimsy curtains of his hotel room. The genius cop makes mistake after disastrous mistake: crude sexual advances at an underaged witness; lies to cover previous lies; even a covert pact with the main suspect himself. This is a masterful performance by Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves, Good Will Hunting), one that ably demonstrates his skills as one of the world's finest character actors. Under the pitiless glare of around-the-clock sunlight, without the escape of sleep, Jan is forced to see himself clearly for the first time, and Skarsgard shows us in minute detail how shattering this experience is for his character. Skjoldbjaerg's flair for creating atmosphere, powerful though never showy or artificial, reinforces the claustrophobic feel of enveloping dread that's only slightly relieved by a surprising yet plausible ending. See this movie -- but be prepared to miss a little sleep yourself.
4.0 stars


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