The big kicker to the story, written by Nikolaj Frobenius, and Skjoldbjærg’s chief hook, which enabled Skarsgård to nail his brilliant performance, was the fact that during this particular northern Norway season, the sun never sets. The detective wakes up at 2:46am on one of his first late eve/early morns in the town, and light streams through his windows. He, eventually, puts duct tape around the slits in the curtains to enforce false darkness, but this doesn’t really work either. His character is trapped in terminal, eternal sunshine, and so is the viewer as one is sucked further down a surreal storytelling hole.
Early on, Engstrom, the character played by Skarsgård, chases what would become an innocent suspect in the fog on some fairly rocky terrain. Unfortunately, in a moment of panic and confusion, Engstrom shoots his older detective partner, Erik Vik, played by Sverre Anker Gusdal. Deepening the tragedy, is the fact that Engstrom, in his myopic delusion, covers up the accidental shooting in order to save face and, perhaps, his career.
As Engstrom continues his work without sleep or a sense of conscience, he only seems to have the ability to somehow stay awake, pursue the real suspect, Jon Holt, played with dark wit, intelligence, and eccentricity by Bjørn Floberg, and killer of the young girl, and avoid detection of what has now turned into the frame-up of the real suspect with the murder of not only the girl, but his fallen partner. Got that?
Engstrom is eventually questioned to the nth degree with due diligence and patience by a detective colleague played with quiet and expert restraint by Maria Bonnevie. She gets IT, but doesn’t know how to prove her theory, as the weary yet meticulous detective has shrewdly, and with evil malice, covered his tracks well.
In the end, the viewer is left with images of confusion, paranoia, thoughtlessness, lustful yearnings, a surreal lack of golden slumbers, and a film that has been presented in an extraordinarily original and engaging way by a first time director. Kudos to Skjoldbjaerg for not judging his characters or telling a story that is trite in any way. An example of how a subject in another filmmaker’s hands can miss the mark is the 2002 American remake starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank of this 1997 classic piece of Scandinavian cinema. Neither Pacino nor Williams had the grim gravitas to execute their roles with the weight of the original production, or its ensemble cast. Hats off to Skarsgård who, again, turns in a frighteningly realistic portrait of what can happen to an intelligent and determined human being when sleep ain’t actually around the next corner.