Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Detective Engstrom rolls over, facing away from a light that prohibits his sleep. An investigation for a murdered teenage girl leads him to this location, well within the Arctic Circle where sunlight is continuous. As Engstrom’s means become progressively questionable, he becomes less able to sleep. The sun is an omnipresent force — an eye that witnesses his every course.
Engstrom’s trail is supplied upon the discovery of the girl’s body, painstakingly deprived of all clues. The investigators observe the immaculately prepared corpse, and silently acknowledge the intelligence and fortitude of its killer.
In Insomnia, a suspenseful contemporary noir worthy of the hackneyed description, the murderer and his investigator are not proverbial and conflictive representations of good and evil. They possess a human capacity for mischaracterizing traits; this is a realistic scenario in which temptation houses a narrow threshold for both parties.
Insomnia contains twists too significant — and unexpected — to ruin. Setbacks follow setbacks, and the two guilty characters, again the killer and his hunter, become desperate to escape conviction. It is a notable point of narrative innovation that in order to do this, midway through, the pair in conflict meet. There is a codependence between Engstrom and the killer: each has an opportunity to blackmail threatened only by their victim’s ability to do the same, yet they can only exclude themselves from the crime in mutual action. It is a volatile dynamic that founds the film’s final, excitingly unpredictable half.
Location is crucial in the film as it is invariably tied to the story’s course. There is a remarkable scene in which several policeman stakeout a rural shack — a trap they have fashioned to lure the killer. Almost instantly, a dense fog overwhelms their view. An ensuing chase is fatefully resolved by this weather.
At this point a notable hypocrisy is founded. Engstrom has earned this case because of his reputation as an investigator, yet in two instances displays the very faults cited in the man he intends to convict. Engstrom questions a friend two the murdered girl (the narrow length of her skirt is shown in an obsessively apparent detail; she is a pawn for temptation). Her bare legs leaned precariously beside the gearshift, Engstrom moves his hand between them. Though this action may actually be imagined, it does display the pedophilic lust of Engstrom — the same temptation that led to the previous girls death.
Insomnia is film noir with scrupulous respect to the genre. It is a mystery that leads to corruption, a scenario where truth’s location is always distant. Noir is by definition dark, and not one principal character in Insomnia brings a shed of light to it.