In the Wee Small Hours: Insomnia Onscreen

By  · Published on March 6th, 2017

An odyssey through cinematic sleepless nights.

If you’ve ever suffered even the most minor bout of insomnia then you know it isn’t just an after-dark malady, it’s something that effects your (intended) waking hours as well, and if you’re unfortunate enough to suffer from it regularly, then you know it can in fact take over your entire life, clouding your thoughts, pushing a divide between mind and body, and even blurring reality to a point you can’t tell it from delusions. Sleep deprivation is, after all, a one-way ticket to temporary psychosis, and it is an especially cruel torture, one that has driven many a sufferer to self-medication and other such seeds of even bigger problems.

Insomnia isn’t the same as some external force – a dripping faucet, a barking dog, sirens et cetera – keeping you awake, insomnia is entirely internal, the result of an unquiet mind, and as such it can be difficult to relate the turmoil of insomnia in a visual medium like film. It requires, obviously, a talented actor, but also an atmosphere created by the director and cinematographer that captures the essence of insomnia, that nebulous, uncertain, fragile state teetering between realms, half-dream, half-real, but lacking the comfort granted by either.

In the following compilation by Philip Brubaker for Fandor, instances of insomnia have been collected from dozens of movies to show the multiple ways it can be depicted and conveyed to an audience. Brubaker has used no narration here, choosing instead to let the images speak for themselves, which in my opinion is always the most effective way, and from his selections he tells his own story that takes us on an emotional journey from empathy to commiseration. Beware, though, it’s strangely infectious; maybe watch it while sipping a glass of warm milk.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist