Recent years have seen a renewed dramatic interest in the chestnuts we all remember from Introduction to Psychology. TV has its Masters of Sex, Sundancers get dueling features about the Stanford Prison Experiment and the cruel discoveries of Stanley Milgram. While we wait for a good biopic on Ivan Pavlov, writer/director Robert Budreau examines the Stockholm Syndrome by reenacting the hostage crisis that gave the phenomenon a name. His Stockholm, which gently massages actual events to serve as a fine vehicle for Noomi Rapace and Ethan Hawke, is far from the first movie to believably show a crime victim coming to sympathize with a criminal. But it’s a funny and agile one, and should work well for art house auds before eventually becoming a home-video study aid for students of human behavior.
The film begins with a close-up on Rapace’s Bianca Lind, clearly set well after her release from captivity but intentionally cryptic about who her words (in voiceover) are addressed to. She acknowledges dwelling on “what happened to us,” reflecting on the site-specific dynamics in which “you fall for your captor … or so they say.”
A tense and sometimes funny exploration of a famous crime.
Flash back to 1973, as Hawke’s Lars Nystrom combs some dye through his moustache, dons a wig and leather pants, and strolls into Stockholm’s largest bank with a machine gun in his duffel. He sets a small radio on the bank counter, fires a couple of rounds into the ceiling, and seemingly makes it clear the place is being robbed. (None of the names here are those of the actual participants, nor do their actions quite reflect real ones — though many particulars are drawn straight from history.)
Knowing what we know about the film’s psychological agenda, we’re alert to ways this villain might endear himself to the terrified people around him. And from the start, armchair psychologists will have plenty to note. Almost immediately after sending the bank’s employees and customers into a cowering shock, Lars rushes over to Bianca, an employee hiding behind her desk. “Did you just set off the alarm!?,” he shouts menacingly. But when she acknowledges she did, he reassuringly says, “that’s very good.”
A trained manipulator could hardly do a better job of terrorizing, then calming his subject. But it’s soon clear that Lars isn’t here to brainwash people, or even to rob the bank. He wants to force the local police chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) to secure the release of Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong), an old bank-robbing buddy currently serving time in Swedish prison. Getting the chief to deliver Sorensson is surprisingly easy. Getting out of the jail with hostages in tow is not.
When the standoff settles into place, Lars and Gunnar have three hostages (two female employees and a male bystander) while Mattsson and a gaggle of lawmen occupy the bank’s second floor, waiting for the crooks to slip up. Budreau’s screenplay finds plenty of subtle opportunities for Lars to present himself to his captives as the person most interested in their well-being. Chief Mattsson is so bent on outwitting the kidnappers that he seems to ignore the civilians (the twisty mind games Mattsson tries on Lars are the film’s biggest asset, outside the Lars/Bianca relationship), and even the country’s prime minister adopts a posture (“we live in an orderly society”) that seems to make the hostages’ safety less than top priority.
As the hostage who will come to most closely identify with the outlaws, Rapace has the film’s biggest job. She’s not so insensitive as to make it look easy. Bianca is married with two young children, and, judging solely from Rapace’s mien, harbors no fantasies about running away with a rogue. But she notices every thing Lars does to make this ordeal easier for her, sees how he is subtly disrespected by the man he’s trying to rescue, and, late in the plot, realizes Lars is the same criminal who once saved the life of an old man while robbing his house. And just as important, Bianca is allowed a few bits of contact with her husband (one of which is a nervously comic highlight), and that decent, frightened man lets her down in banal but telling ways.
Having collaborated with Hawke on the Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue, Budreau makes sure the actor has a rich part to play here. Though it’s not going to knock Dog Day Afternoon off its perch, this depiction of under-the-gun bargaining and psychological baggage is a good workout for Hawke without distracting from crime-flick pleasures. Having made clear that Stockholm doesn’t fully align to the facts of 1973’s so-called “Norrmalmstorg robbery,” it would be wrong to reveal how things work out for these fictionalized characters. But viewers who walk in confident they’d never succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome may, at least, walk out understanding how somebody else could.
Production company: Darius Films
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace, Mark Strong, Christopher Heyerdahl, Bea Santos, Thorbjorn Harr
Director-Screenwriter: Robert Budreau
Producers: Nicholas Tabarrok, Robert Burdreau, Jonathan Bronfman
Executive producers: Scott Aversano, Jason Blum, William Santor, Will Russell-Shapiro
Director of photography: Brendan Steacy
Production designer: Aidan Leroux
Costume designer: Lea Carlson
Editor: Richard Comeau
Composer: Steve London
Casting directors: John Buchan, Jason Knight
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Sales: Nick Ogiony, CAA