Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 thriller Insomnia did for film noir what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining did for horror: wrest the genre from the night into the harsh glare of daylight to prove that the same basic elements could be just as atmospheric and unsettling in plain view as they are hidden in shadow. Its protagonist’s guilt manifests itself in harsh, unending light, always there, always in the open and preventing any kind of rest. Five years later, a filmmaker looking for a crossover hit after a critical breakthrough used a remake of this picture to establish his cred with studios. The filmmaker was Christopher Nolan, and his work on this film, when taken with Memento, set him on the path to becoming a blockbuster juggernaut.
But how does Nolan’s film compare to Skjoldbjærg’s original? In some ways, the two match almost exactly: both movies concern a disgraced forensics expert (Stellan Skarsgård’s Engström in the original, Al Pacino’s Dormer in the remake) helping a murder investigation in a northern tundra during the excessively long daylight hours of summer. When they try to spring a trap for the killer, each detectives accidentally kills his partner and finds himself drawn into a nerve-wracking blackmail scheme with the murderer who witnesses the inadvertent manslaughter. Slowly, the titular insomnia caused by the never-setting sun and suffocating guilt drive both men to the brink of mental collapse. Only a few tweaks change the plot in any way, mainly to add or expand action, differentiate the story. The most meaningful moral change, involves making the protagonist’s partner an old friend complicit in his transgression, introducing the tacit possibility that Pacino’s detective fulfills a subconscious desire when he accidentally kills the other cop.
Stylistically, however, the two films sharply diverge. Skjoldbjærg opens his movie with raw, grainy footage of the crime in question, hands reaching from behind frame to throttle a terrified woman until her head slams on a protruding nail and she goes stiff. Then the killer disposes of evidence in equally frenzied fashion, washing the victim’s hair, scrubbing his DNA from under her fingernails, etc. The griminess of this memory, vivid but abstracted with bleached light and cut in a fluid but overwhelming fashion, sets the standard for the director’s visceral take. Nolan, on the hand, starts instead with a latex-gloved-thumb rubbing at a bloodstained sleeve. The clinical coldness of these shots, wherein even an extreme-close-up can feel removed, encapsulates Nolan’s arch style, while the inverted identity of the person unsuccessfully erasing the stain shows off his love of narrative twists. The Lady Macbeth touch of these images also speaks to his middlebrow sense of false depth, a bit of cleverness masquerading as subtlety.
Nolan’s fetish for realism also comes into play. He casts the Alaskan hinterland in flat compositions and muted colors, highlighting the tedium that lulls Dormer even as it also keeps him awake. He also visualizes Dormer’s sleep-depriving thoughts through blasts of intercut flashbacks of his sins, a literal-minded glimpse into the protagonist’s mind. Skjoldbjærg, on the other hand, stylizes the world around Engström: pure white light pours in from every window, and Skarsgård himself walks around in a perpetual flop sweat, his face so slack it threatens to give way and slide off completely.
The Norwegian director does not much care for the suspense of whether the cops will catch the killer or, more insidiously, whether the protagonist will be discovered. The film trades thrills for chills, in other words, maintaining focus on the lead’s reactions to his failings instead of moving outward to see who might be on his tail. Nolan takes the more traditional, narrative-based path, but in his defense he wrings more tension out of his film despite his pedestrian style. One of Nolan’s talents is his ability to use his budget to its fullest extent, and he adds considerable panache to Skjoldbjærg’s basic setpieces. In fact, Nolan makes that film’s climax, a chase along floating logs, its next to last sequence just so he can pack in an extra shootout at the end. He also greatly complicates the simplistic setting of the shack where the cops lay their trap for the killer, adding snaking bridges and tunnels around the foggy area that demonstrate Nolan’s later Escherian designs in prototype.
Perhaps, then, the differences between the two versions can be explained by the ambitions of their respective makers. Skjoldbjærg seems to have set out to make a unique noir, not only with the aforementioned inversion of light dynamics but in the almost Coenesque anticlimax and the way that the protagonist’s release and relief is ironically communicated by a plunge back into darkness. Nolan, by virtue of remaking Skjoldbjærg’s film, does not have the option of true originality. Instead, he crafts something at once more banal and more grandiose, making a movie that fits within the long tradition of Hollywood lobotomizing and repackaging inventive foreign films even as he finds other ways to sharpen the source material and map out his own, auteurist approach to the theme of guilt. Besides, anyone who can pit Al Pacino against Robin Williams and wind up with underplayed, calm scenes rather than a maelstrom of overacting deserves whatever Warner Bros. will let him tackle.