Friday, October 9, 2015

At the Movies: "Insomnia" vs. "Insomnia"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Erik Skjoldbjærg, 1997.

imbd: 7.7
Ebert: Three and a half Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Fresh

Christopher Nolan, 2002.

imbd: 7.2
Ebert: Three and a half Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% Fresh

Insomnia is a Norwegian movie about a Stockholm detective with a troubled past who gets sent up to Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle, to work a disturbing murder case. Whereas Insomnia is an American movie about a L.A. detective with a troubled past who gets sent up to fictional Nightmute, Alaska, to work a disturbing murder case. Naturally, as an effete intellectual, I am all but required to prefer the original Norwegian film over the American adaptation, right? Well, let's see.

Method: First, I checked out the American version from the library, and then hung onto it for about four months because I wanted to watch the Norwegian original first. Since the library didn't have the Norwegian original, there was little progress until I recently decided to catch up to 2004 and join Netflix. It was a real thrill to get one of those red envelopes for my very own! I watched the two versions on consecutive nights.

Findings: Let's do like Aristotle and think of these entertainments in terms of a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The Norwegian film wins the beginning. Both introduce the detective and supporting cast without too much trouble, I suppose, but a movie starts with its opening credits. The Norwegian film kicks things off with a stylish, eerie montage of the murder in question. The American film begins with an unstylish montage that cross-cuts between food coloring stains -- it doesn't look remotely like blood -- and shots of an airplane flying at treetop level over an Alaskan glacier. The airplane is taking the detective and his partner to Nightmute. As you know, airplanes taking people from point A to point B fly up there in the sky, not skimming the ground, so if you are at all clued into aviation, this is kind of like showing the detective being driven to the crime scene with the car going down the highway in reverse. It's jarring. Similarly, Nightmute doesn’t look remotely like an Alaskan town. It looks like someplace on the Northwest coast (it was in fact filmed in British Columbia). Similarly, someone working in an Alaskan hotel, when greeting a guest, is not going to accusingly announce "You're from the Lower 48!" Almost everyone who stays at an Alaskan hotel is "from the Lower 48." That’s what Alaskan hotels are for.

Through the middle of the film, the American adaptation follows the original’s plot points fairly closely. The investigations proceed through the same steps, and both detectives suffer from sleeplessness in the eternal daylight of the Northern summer. There is a cultural divide between the detective and the locals, in the original because the detective is a Swede in Norway, in the remake because the detective is an L.A. guy in Alaska, or at least in a version of Alaska as imagined by people from L.A.

The character of the detectives begins to diverge, however. The Swedish detective is a creep: “the Rather Bad Lieutenant,” I nicknamed him. Whereas, the American detective is more “The Mediocre Lieutenant,” flawed but always kept likable. Too, there is a key twist in both movies that is made much clearer in the American version. In the original, the action is confusing and the detective’s reaction is hard to understand; in the remake, there’s no mistaking what happened, and we’ve been set up to understand why the detective reacts the way he does. On balance, I would award the middle to the American version. There’s much to be said for subtlety and nuance, but I shouldn’t be confused about what I saw happen on screen unless that is the film’s intended effect. The Norwegian version’s concern for maintaining a pensive, hard-boiled mood comes at the sacrifice of narrative clarity.

At for the ending: At least one person who has behaved badly in the Norwegian version is allowed to get away with it. In the American version, not only do evil-doers get their just deserts, but one of them actually makes a repentant little speech about it. It feels a bit like some elderly ladies from the church had seen the original script and offered some ideas about how the remake could end on a more positive, uplifting note. So, the Norwegian version wins the ending hands down.

Conclusions: Insomnia (Norway) is a fine example of Scandinavian noir, but occasionally lets the story down in its single-minded pursuit of a brooding mood. Insomnia (USA) is a likable police procedural, but careless in its details.  While it improves on some weaknesses of the original, it fails to live up to its strengths.

Michael5000’s imdb rating for Insomnia (Norway): 7.
Michael5000’s imdb rating for Insomnia (USA): 6.

Supplementary Advice to Young Police Officers: If, at some point in your career, you decide to dispose of incriminating material by throwing it into a lake, it would be really smart to remove it from its labelled, zip-locked police evidence bag first.

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