By Gary M. Kramer.
Stockholm, written and directed by Robert Budreau, recounts the “absurd but true” 1973 Norrmalmstorg (Kreditbanken) robbery and hostage crisis that introduced the “Stockholm Syndrome” – the condition where a hostage bonds with their captor. This peculiar crime drama starts out rocky, but then manages to exert a pull on viewers who become invested in the characters as both mind games and a game of one-upmanship develops between the cops and the criminals. However, while Budreau’s film is an efficient 90 minutes, it lacks some deep psychological insights into the condition that gives the story its purpose.
Budreau makes some changes to the facts of the case, the biggest being that the criminal, Lars Nystrom (Ethan Hawke) is American. Lars enters the bank wearing a leather jacket with an 1824 flag, leather pants, and a cowboy hat perched on top of his ratty wig. As he swaggers inside – holding a door for an older woman to show he is compassionate – he pulls out a firearm and shouts, “Giddyup!” He also turns on a radio he brought with him and plays some Bob Dylan for the bank patrons who are hugging the floor and hoping for safe passage.
As Lars’ “party,” as he calls it, commences, he lets most of the bank patrons leave. He keeps two female employees, Bianca Lind (Noomi Rapace) and Klara Mardh (Bea Santos) hostage. (A man they discover in the vault becomes an unwitting third hostage.) It is, as Stockholm reveals, the first ever hostage crisis in Sweden. Lars is soon making demands, starting with getting his friend Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) released from prison. As the cops determine how to best handle the unusual situation, Lars breaks out a game of cribbage and explains they have to use matchsticks instead of red pegs.
Stockholm starts to get absurd here, with Lars singing Bob Dylan in the bank vault and making more demands – for a Mustang 302 (Steve McQueen’s car in Bullitt), a million dollars in unmarked bills, and other things. He even asks Bianca to drive the getaway car so Gunnar (who has arrived on the scene) and Lars can make a clean escape. But as all this unfolds, the film is not especially gripping even with Hawke’s showboating performance. As Lars starts to become unhinged – and he gets more and more manic as the story progresses, most notably when he picks a knock-down, drag-out fight with Gunnar in the vault – his palpable desperation become oddly sympathetic when it isn’t just odd.
The story starts to get really interesting during an episode in which Lars arranges to shoot Bianca to show he means business to the cops. However, the action goes sideways, and Lars comes to believe he really killed his hostage. Nevertheless, the tactic works to capture the authorities’ attention as they start plotting ways to secure the freedom of the remaining hostages while also arresting Lars and Gunnar. Stockholm hits its stride in these increasingly intense scenes. When the police trap Lars, Gunnar, and the hostages in the vault, they plan to turn up the heat and then tear gas them. But the criminals, though literally boxed into a corner, devise a clever plan to save themselves and get another shot at freedom.
Despite these engaging moments, Budreau never quite gets at what motivates the characters and their behavior. Lars comes across as insecure, bungling, and even childish, especially when he fights with Gunnar. A late night conversation he has with Bianca reveals some of his humanity, but their kissing at this juncture seems awkward, even unearned. Likewise, police chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) apparently wants respect from Lars, more than anything else, which seems like a misplaced priority. As double crosses occur, it becomes difficult for viewers to determine who to root for as events come to a climax.
And this may be Stockholm’s point – that this crazy true crime story was mishandled from the start and created a syndrome that became a thing. Budreau is not judging his characters. He provides a coda that investigates Bianca’s questionable affection for Lars. Her relationship with him is clearly a change of pace from life with her dull husband, Christopher (Thorbjørn Harr). An exchange Christopher has with Bianca when he shows up at the bank hoping to rescue or retrieve her is darkly amusing – she provides detailed instructions on how to make the dinner for the kids.
Stockholm succeeds because of Rapace’s shrewd performance, which allows her to be the calm, quiet center in the storm happening around her. Rapace’s body language is exceptional as her character undoes the gamut of emotions, from fear to numbness. But it is her expressions of sympathy – for Klara and for Lars – that truly impresses. Hawke gives a gutsy performance in the central role, and he is entertaining whenever Lars has one of his grand, dramatic outbursts. In support, the usually reliable Mark Strong fails to distinguish himself in his underwritten role.
Budreau’s film curiously does not indicate how each character’s fate played out, which is a missed opportunity. The ending Budreau does offer involves Bianca and suggests that Stockholm could have been told entirely from her perspective. Had the director taken that approach, his film might have generated more understanding of the topic it was depicting. As it is, however, Stockholm is uneven, but not entirely uninteresting.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.