Reviving the Dead: Insomnia (1997)


To view Insomnia click here.

There’s a moment in the 1997 thriller, Insomnia, where Detective Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgård) walks out of an autopsy and sighs, “I’m fed up with reviving the dead.” He’s with his partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), an older, more relaxed police detective. His philosophy is basically, “It’s whatever you make of it.” Engstrom replies, “No, it’s not.” Vik just smiles and changes the topic. Solving one murder after another has put Engstrom in the unenviable position of constantly getting to know dead people intimately that he can never know in life. He’s tired, physically and mentally, and his newest case won’t even grant him the luxury of a dark and quiet night in which to get some sleep.

The autopsy Engstrom and Vik were leaving was that of Tanja (Maria Mathiesen), a teenager found dead in a garbage dump in a small Norwegian town far enough north that now, in summer, it is daylight all day and night. When Engstrom and Vik naturally question her boyfriend, they’re not convinced. The boyfriend doesn’t have the kind of calculating mind of the murderer they’re tracking. They know from the autopsy that the murderer carefully removed all physical evidence of his involvement. He scrubbed her nails, cleaned her body, even washed her hair. When the girl’s backpack is found, filled with possible evidence that could identify the killer, they put out a public announcement saying the opposite. They hadn’t found it, they say, and ask for everyone to look out for it. Then, they put it back where it was discovered and wait for the killer to show up. He does, but flees and the police give chase. That’s when everything goes wrong. (BEGIN SPOILERS)

Two things are important here: The first is that Engstrom and Vik are on loan from Sweden. Engstrom was a chief inspector there but was drummed out after a humiliating incident in which a raid found him in bed with a high level witness of an investigation he was leading. It’s common knowledge and Engstrom even hears the Norwegian police laughing about it when they don’t think he can hear them. The second is that the Norwegian police don’t carry guns but the Swedes do.

In their pursuit of the killer, gunfire rings out. The killer, it turns out, came armed. When Engstrom, chasing the killer in the fog, accidentally shoots his partner, there are only two people that could have done it and he doesn’t want anyone to know it was him.

Actually, that’s not completely true. He sits down with the Norwegian police chief and describes the shooting, indicating that when Vik ran towards him, he shot. But the chief thinks he means the killer was running towards him and, suddenly, the wheels turn. He’s already been humiliated and disgraced and is now looking for work in Norway. Accidentally killing his own partner would surely put the final nail in his reputation’s coffin. He doesn’t correct the chief and goes with the story that the killer shot his partner. Now he just has to construct evidence to make that seem true.

When another detective in Norway, Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), gets assigned to Vik’s murder, Engstrom doesn’t realize, at first, how much sharper and thorough she is than he expected and soon, he finds himself in communication with the killer himself, who saw Engstrom shoot Vik, plotting to frame the boyfriend after all. (END SPOILERS)


Insomnia was the debut feature for Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg, who also co-wrote the script with Nikolaj Frobenius. The story goes down many interesting paths from its starting point of an unsolved mystery, not the least of which is the murder itself. It was committed in a moment of passion by a writer of crime fiction who has spent decades detailing exactly how people cover up their crimes. Once the murder was committed, his experience allowed him to disconnect from it. He’s involved in something he never expected to come into direct contact with, but when he reflects on it later he almost has a sense of pride at his ability to cover it up.

By the same token, Engstrom also has the skills to cover up his crime. He gets no pleasure from it, but doesn’t back away from the opportunity when it presents itself. The two men discover each other long before anyone else does, as they represent not so much two sides of the same coin but rather the same side of the same coin. One is simply a writer, the other a cop, but both men seem strikingly similar in attitude, demeanor and temperament. They both committed a crime they never thought they would and then went about meticulously making themselves disappear.

The title of course refers to the fact that Engstrom can’t sleep. That could be because it’s too light out, and he tries desperately to cover the window at his hotel room to block out the sun, but in reality he was exhausted the minute he showed up. He is clearly a man of bad decisions, as judged by his previous disgrace and his current situation. The killer even asks him why he didn’t just admit it and get a two week suspension. Why do this to yourself? He has no answer.

From its opening credits, where we watch the killer clean the body of the victim, to the many scenes around the deserted day-lit town, the movie has an incredible sense of lurking menace. When it was remade in 2002 by Christopher Nolan (and a very good remake, by the way), the original director even noted that the remake borrowed much stylistically from the original and he was honored that they didn’t feel they had to change that. They did change the ending (of course they did) but kept the tone intact.

If you’ve only seen the remake, you really should check out the original. It’s a lean piece of work that doesn’t hit you over the head with its metaphors or outline every motivation of every character. And it ends on a bleaker note than the remake but one that makes a deeper impact on the lead character. He’s offered one more opportunity to finally rest his mind and once more, chooses insomnia over sanity.

Greg Ferrara

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2 Responses Reviving the Dead: Insomnia (1997)
Posted By Doug : July 7, 2017 7:09 am

“It’s a lean piece of work that doesn’t hit you over the head with its metaphors or outline every motivation of every character.”
I would love that-I lose patience with films where the assumption seems to be that the audience has never seen a film before so they must spell everything out.
I skipped down past the spoilers, as my interest is piqued in the film. I have experienced the 24 hour sunshine above the Arctic circle-I was awake for 3 days as my ‘sleep clock’ was thrown off.
Then I slept for two days.

Posted By swac44 : August 17, 2017 4:43 pm

I also experienced the midnight sun of an Icelandic summer, and it does do weird things to your psyche. I think the original does a slightly better job of portraying this than the sequel, but I do enjoy both films in pretty much equal measure. Thanks to Netflix, we’ve been able to enjoy additional police procedurals from Scandinavia, in film and series form, and they do seem to have a knack for telling stories about ordinary people coping with the most terrible circumstances.

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