A remarkably polished and thoughtful first feature by Norwegian helmer Erik Skjoldbjaerg, psychological crime thriller “Insomnia” is an eye-opener. Though boasting the edgy visual panache and off-kilter sensibilities of contempo pics such as “Barton Fink” and “Seven,” “Insomnia” actually reaches back further to the themes and situations of Durrenmatt and Poe and offers a complex and emotionally compelling tale that doesn’t settle for mere quirkiness or the de rigueur cop-thriller gore currently in vogue. Solid critical response and the first-rate perf of lead thesp Stellan Skarsgard (“Breaking the Waves”) as the sleep-deprived homicide detective at the center of the tale could wake up decent arthouse dollars, but pic’s laudable seriousness of purpose might slow crossover prospects.
When a teenage girl is brutally murdered and her body dumped in a small town in northern Norway, the semi-pro local police know they need an expert to nab the unknown killer. Some undescribed slip-up in his past has sent the Swedish homicide detective Jonas Engstrom (Skarsgard) to toil in Oslo, and he and his aging partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), are brought in to the country burg to stalk the elusive prey.
Compounding their challenge is the killer’s methodical cleanup of the crime scene, down to washing the hair of the victim and disposing of all her clothes, as well as the region’s unrelenting 24-hour-a-day summer sunshine. It quickly becomes glaringly clear that Engstrom is a man on the verge of a mental meltdown.
While the locals treat him as a kind of superstar cop, Engstrom is disturbed by the victim’s tragic fate. Her youth and beauty have been blotted out with no clear suspect or motive in sight, and Engstrom’s demeanor indicates that he’s lost the cool detachment that’s essential to doing his job and keeping his sanity.
The deeper he’s drawn into the case, ably supported by local femme flatfoot Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), the more we see evidence of his famed meticulousness and detective prowess. He begins grilling the girl’s friends, setting out to uncover the inner life of the victim. When the girl’s missing backpack is found, he cunningly sets up a trap for the killer: He goes on local TV and announces that the pack is missing and is key to the solution of the case. The bait is set in a remote seaside area where the pack was found, and the police are stationed in the surrounding hills, hopeful the killer will attempt to grab the incriminating goods and in turn be grabbed by the good guys.
Unfortunately, the amateur local gendarmes foul up his strategy by failing to nail down a key geographical element of the plan. Then, in a quick, tragic turn of events, Engstrom accidentally shoots Vik, and before the rest of the crew get to the body, Engstrom engineers a coverup of the accident.
From this point on, pic is a superbly plotted dissection of Engstrom’s professional and moral corrosion, a process that becomes so complete that the fates of the hunter and the hunted are intertwined. While not the freshest of concepts, the bare bones of the tale are still sturdy enough to carry the characters through a number of twists and turns that are both credible and motivated. Strong perfs by the entire cast, and the odd Norwegian noirish atmospherics also lend an air of freshness.
The screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Skjoldbjaerg is a deft melding of a study of psychological dissolution and the crime thriller genre. It’s an oft-said critique of the Coen brothers that their films lay on ironic humor but lack humanity and compassion, and “Insomnia” serves as a wonderful model of how those elements can be successfully blended and balanced. Powerful, vivid lensing by Erling Thurmann-Andersen is yet another asset that contributes to the film’s disturbing, jagged shifts of mood.