Insomnia is a 2002 psychological thriller film directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Hillary Seitz, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name that was directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg (his film debut) and written by him and Nikolaj Frobenius. The 2002 film stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank, with Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, and Paul Dooley; the Scandinavian equivalent of Pacino’s character, the insomniac, was played by Stellan Skarsgård.
The 2002 film is the only Nolan film that he didn’t write or cowrite; it was also part of his transition from independent filmmaking to studio, mainstream Hollywood movies. It was praised, with a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 200 reviews; Pacino’s and Williams’s performances were given especial praise, the latter’s being a noted departure, as with his performance in One Hour Photo, from his more usual zany, comic acting, to portraying a dangerously disturbed character.
The Norwegian film begins with the murder of a 17-year-old girl, Tanja (played by Maria Mathiesen), during the credits; whereas Nolan’s film shows the murder of its equivalent, 17-year-old Kay Connell (played by Crystal Lowe) in split-second flashbacks. The 1997 film shows a shot of an airplane going over clouds obscuring the sun as it takes police officers Jonas Engström (Skarsgård) and Erik Vik (played by Sverre Anker Ousdal) to a Norwegian town above the Arctic Circle, the land of the midnight sun. This obscuring of light will be a recurring theme, symbolic and literal, in both movies.
In the 2002 film, the American equivalents of Engström and Vik, respectively LA Detectives Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Donovan) are in a small plane flying to Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the equivalent crime there.
While the dominant theme of both films is, of course, guilt, another can be seen: the blurred distinction between opposites, as blurred as the vision of each film’s insomniac cop. These unclearly defined opposites include insomnia itself (one is sleepless, but sleepy), day and night (in the Arctic region, the summer sun is shining at night), and right and wrong (our cops catch killers, but the former aren’t exactly innocent themselves: Dormer’s planting of questionable evidence; Engström’s sexual misconduct).
Both Dormer and Engström have reputations as excellent cops; in fact, young local Nightmute Detective Ellie Burr (Swank) admires Dormer for his investigative work. Still, these good reputations of the American and Swedish cops are thin disguises of their not-so-laudable true selves, dark sides that are coming to light just as surely as the midnight sun that keeps poking through the two men’s hotel room windows as they try to sleep.
How are their dark sides coming to light? Dormer has internal affairs wanting to reopen a child rapist/murderer case in which he planted evidence to ensure conviction; Eckhart is going to testify against him, naturally causing resentment in Dormer. Engström eavesdrops on Vik gossiping about an “intimate conversation” between Engström and a female witness from a former case back in Sweden. As we can see, there’s a blurry boundary between good reputations and bad character, too.
One point to be emphasized about the cops’ bad characters being obscured by their good reputations–like those clouds obscuring the sun, or like the cops’ attempts to block out the sunlight coming through their hotel windows–is that these two cops aren’t all that much better than the men they’re trying to charge with murder. As we all should know by now, cops–as protectors of the interests of the bourgeoisie–are often as guilty of crimes (murder, bribery, etc.) as those they arrest, while often getting far better protection from punishment than the criminals can get.
Connected to this protection is the guilt many cops must feel over their own wrongdoings. And how does anyone deal with feelings of guilt or anxiety? Through the use of defence mechanisms, which in the case of Insomnia include denial, rationalization, suppression, splitting, and most importantly of all, projection…including projective identification.
Dormer would naturally deny his deliberate falsifying of evidence to convict the child rapist/murderer, including when he, on the phone to the one in LA who’s in charge of internal affairs, curses him out, acting as if he’s the victim of a kind of witch hunt. Dormer also rationalizes his planting of false evidence and his resistance to the reopening of his cases, speaking not of the stain on his reputation, but rather the danger of letting criminals back out on the street.
He and Engström try to suppress their guilt over…accidentally?…shooting and killing their partners (recall that Walter Finch [Williams] and Jon Holt [played by Bjørn Floberg] also claim that their murders were accidents) by never confessing to them. The cops suppress, but cannot repress, their guilt, hence their sleeplessness.
When Hap confesses to Dormer that he has to cut a deal with internal affairs to stop them from digging up any dirt on him (a rationalization of Hap’s own guilt over betraying his partner), Dormer makes no secret of his anger over this betrayal. He engages in splitting Hap into a ‘bad Hap’ (the betrayer) and a ‘good Hap’ (his still-reliable partner). Dormer’s experience of the paranoid-schizoid position (‘paranoid’ because of his feelings of betrayal, and fear that the ‘bad Hap’ internal object will plague him with guilt after killing Hap; ‘schizoid’ from the splitting of Hap into absolute good and bad versions of him) will turn into the depressive position after he kills Hap and feels guilty about it, his hallucinations of Hap (his ‘ghost,’ as it were) being his projected internal object of Hap.
Similarly, Engström’s resentment after overhearing Vik gossip about the former’s sexual indiscretion with the female witness–which seems intensified by VIk’s recollection of being in their hotel before, having taken a room that a man and woman claimed was theirs rather than Vik’s and his wife’s (and given aging Vik’s failing memory, this incident seems to be a garbled memory of Vik and his fellow cops, “armed to the teeth,” coming to a room and finding Engström with that woman in that “intimate conversation”)–seems to have caused him to split Vik into good and bad Viks. This splitting may have facilitated Engström’s shooting of Vik as a Freudian slip rather than as an innocent mistake, as is the case with Dormer shooting Hap. That obscuring fog was most convenient for our protagonists.
The most important defence mechanism against guilt and anxiety, as far as Insomnia is concerned, is projection, as well as projective identification. In the case of Engström and Holt, the boundary between the two is especially blurred: both are guilty of sexual misconduct (i.e., Holt’s sexual advances on Tanja before killing her, as well as Engström’s on Ane, the girl at the front desk of his hotel [played by Maria Bonnevie], and Engström’s putting his hand up the skirt of Freya [played by Marianne O. Ulrichsen], Tanja’s teen classmate, who’s quickly replaced her for the affections of Eilert [played by Bjørn Moan], her abusive boyfriend) and of an ‘accidental’ killing they wish to conceal. Engström would love to project his guilt onto Holt, but he can’t.
Dormer would love to project his perfidious nature (i.e., his betrayal of justice in his planting of false evidence) onto Hap (for betraying Dormer by cooperating with internal affairs), and onto the people in internal affairs (for, as Dormer sees it, betraying the people by reopening his cases and freeing criminals), but he ultimately can’t project his guilt onto them any more than Engström can.
Dormer projects his own guilt onto the criminals he goes after: in his own words, he says that he “assign[s] guilt” by tampering with evidence to ensure the conviction of criminals whose guilt he is convinced of (if lacking in sufficient proof). The conviction of such criminals, however, is not his job; that’s for the prosecution. He also likes to taunt Finch and Randy Stetz (Kay’s abusive boyfriend, played by Jonathan Jackson) by talking about their brutality to Kay; again, talking about the guilt of others offers temporary relief from Dormer’s own guilt.
Similarly, Engström provokes Eilert by insinuating that the boy’s sexual inadequacies are his motive for having beaten Tanja. Again, a focus on Eilert’s guilt diverts attention from that of Engström.
Now, projective identification takes projection a step further by manipulating the object of one’s projections into manifesting proof of the projected traits. We can see this, in a symbolic sense, in Dormer’s/Engström’s falsifying of evidence, which includes Engström’s planting of Holt’s gun in Eilert’s room so he’ll be charged with murdering Vik and Tanja.
In both films, there are a number of scenes that have…well, hidden ways downward. I’m thinking of, for example, the hidden passageway under the shed that allows Finch/Holt to escape when the cops try to catch him with Kay’s/Tanja’s bag as a lure. Similarly, there’s when Dormer chases Finch over the logs floating on the water, and Dormer slips and falls in, allowing Finch to get away again. And finally, there’s when Holt dies at the pier by falling through rotten floorboards and into the water, hitting his head; and when Fiinch, at his lake house, is shot and falls into the water below.
These ‘hidden ways downward,’ for lack of a better way to describe them, are symbolic of the unconscious mind, that hidden place where unknown ideas are thought, and unknown desires are felt and given expression in unrecognizable ways. After finding and rushing through the passageway under the shed, Dormer/Engström comes out into the fog, also symbolic of the unconscious, and shoots Eckhart/Vik, with that fog hiding the guilty cop’s unconsciously murderous intent behind an ‘accident,’ a kind of Freudian slip.
Before Eckhart dies, he tells Dormer he believes he’s shot him on purpose, to stop him from cooperating with internal affairs. Vik simply ran the wrong way, having gone right instead of left as planned. Neither Dormer nor Engström, however, can assuage their guilt by imagining they have made a mere mistake. Hap’s death is no mishap.
What’s more, chasing and not being able to catch Finch/Holt can be seen to represent how Dormer/Engström can’t bring themselves to assign guilt to a man they know they’re no better than. Dormer shoots Finch, but only after Finch has already shot Dormer, rather like when Hamlet kills Claudius only after he knows he himself is about to die from a poisoned wound. The unconscious has a way of making sure the ‘correct’ mistakes are made.
Now, the light of truth will never stop bothering Dormer/Engström. The insomniac cops want to hide in the darkness of their projections, denials, and rationalizations, but the sunlight keeps poking through their windows, no matter how much they try to block it out.
Wilfred R. Bion had insights on the relationship between projection, sleeplessness, and hallucinations that are useful for understanding the psychological state of Dormer/Engström. The irritating light of the midnight sun that keeps coming through their hotel windows is an example of what Bion called beta elements, unprocessed, raw sensory data that need to be detoxified (through alpha function) to be turned into alpha elements, processed, detoxified, and usable for thoughts and dreams.
If these beta elements are too painful to be processed in one’s mind, one cannot soothe oneself, as is the case with Dormer/Engström. Our sleepless cops keep trying to project the light outward, the light of truth that symbolizes the reality of their sins. The blocking-out of the light thus represents what Bion called a beta screen, which is an accumulation of projected beta elements one hasn’t processed or detoxified.
If one doesn’t detoxify these agitating raw sensory data–which in the case of these films represents the cops’ guilt–one cannot create thoughts for dreams and therefore one cannot sleep (Bion, page 7). If this sleeplessness goes on long enough, one will begin to hallucinate, as Dormer/Engström do. Their hallucinations, visions of Hap/Vik, are projections of the internal objects of their dead partners, split-off, hallucinatory projections that Bion called bizarre objects. (Go here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)
Just as Hap’s name is a pun on how, by sheer hap…or was it sheer hap?…he got shot and killed, so is Will Dormer’s name a pair of puns. With a will, Will finds a way not only to ensure conviction of the child rapist/murderer who otherwise would have been acquitted through a reasonable doubt, he also finds a way to falsify evidence so it seems that Hap was shot with a gun other than Will’s. Ainsi, Dormer ne peut pas dormir.
Our teen killers, Finch/Holt, cannot sleep either, of course, and being doubles of their respective cops, they have their own defence mechanisms for wrestling with their inner demons. They rationalize and minimize their murders, claiming they were accidents, that things simply got out of hand, slipped and snowballed from a few slaps to a beating-to-death of their victims.
Finch speaks of how “scared shitless” he is as he keeps hitting Kay, first to stop her from laughing at him for his sexual advances, then to stop her screaming. The slippery slope of escalation has led to his beating Kay to death; then, his fear suddenly switches to calm, yet another blurry distinction between opposites.
When Finch/Holt cleans the body, washing the hair and clipping the fingernails in order to remove all physical traces linking Kay/Tanja to their killers, this cleaning is a symbolic denial of the men’s guilt.
Confession is good for the soul, so when Finch tells Dormer, over the phone, how he came to kill Kay, how her laughter provoked him, and how his violence escalated, he says he’ll be able to sleep better. Similarly, Dormer must feel at least some relief after telling Rachel (Tierney) at the hotel about his tampering with the evidence that convicted the child rapist/murderer.
An interesting contrast between the Norwegian and American versions of the film is in how their respective villains die. In the former, Holt dies from a mere accidental fall, as ‘accidental’ a death as his murder of Tanja, or Engström’s shooting of Vik (Was Holt’s death a suicidal Freudian slip?). In the 2002 film, we have the typical American climactic fight between the good guy and the bad guy, them both shooting and killing each other. The more artistically-inclined European film is more of a psychological study of guilt than a thriller, more morally ambiguous.
Accordingly, Dormer dies of his gunshot wound having redeemed himself by telling Burr–who’s found out about his falsifying of the cause of Hap’s death–not to throw the incriminating evidence into the lake. When Engström, however, is presented with the incriminating evidence by Burr’s equivalent in the 1997 film, Hilde Hagen (played by Gisken Armand), she just puts it on a table in front of him and leaves him without getting him in trouble.
Engström is thus able to leave town with bodily freedom, but no clear conscience. The police privilege of protection from prosecution won’t protect him from his guilt. While Dormer is finally able “to die, to sleep, no more,” Engström, however bodily safe, will never sleep, for he “does murder sleep,” as the 1997 film’s last shot of his eyes glowing in the dark are eyes that will never close.