stockholm review

Stockholm syndrome has inherently horrifying roots: Victims of kidnappings, hostage situations, and other dangerous situations somehow develop feelings of sympathy, maybe even affection, for their captors. But that doesn’t mean that a feature film adaptation of the 1973 bank robbery that originated the term can’t be outright hilarious.

Stockholm, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19, feels like such an irreverent black comedy that you wouldn’t expect it to be based on real-life events. But its stranger-than-fiction premise only serves to heighten everything — the emotions, the absurdity, and the sympathy for its central robber played with a zany, unhinged verve by the scene-stealing Ethan Hawke.

As petty criminal Lars Nystrom, Ethan Hawke is grimy, jittery, and playing wildly against type. And it’s magnificent. When he swaggers into the austere bank in Sweden with a long, curly wig on his head and a machine gun in his hand, he looks ridiculous. “You can call me The Outlaw,” he giddily tells the police, turning to show off his Texan flag-embroidered leather jacket. “Remember the Alamo!”

Hawke’s electric performance immediately injects the film with an relentless energy that Stockholm maintains for its entire hour-and-a-half duration. While the film is structured like a classic hostage thriller, the wild antics of Lars keep the film feeling fresh.

Stockholm follows the robbery of a bank in Stockholm, Sweden that results in the country’s first hostage crisis. Lars holds up the bank, plucking three hostages from the panicked crowd, including Noomi Rapace‘s Bianca Lind. Police and his hostages are soon baffled as he proceeds to list off a series of bizarre demands, starting with the release of his friend and infamous bank robber, Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong). The strange situation only escalates from there, as Lars proves to be all bluster and no bite or brains, with only the arrival of Gunnar setting him straight. But as the hostage crisis drags out, Bianca and the two other hostages (Bea Santos, Mark Rendall) find themselves sympathizing more with Lars and Gunnar than they anticipated.

Stockholm could have been a film that seriously approaches the highly debated syndrome, mining the material for contemplation instead of laughs. But director Robert Budreau realizes that a patently bizarre situation like the hostage crisis that inspired the film can only be treated with equal parts levity and gravity.

Stockholm doesn’t treat the victims or the robbers like curios, but rather like people thrown together into a heightened situation. The result is a funny, tongue-in-cheek thriller with an undercurrent of darkness. The sheer incompetence on both sides make for comedy gold, but also serves to deepen our sympathy with Lars and increase our dislike of the cold, calculating police chief played by Christopher Heyerdahl.

The film exists in the post-Quentin Tarantino world of slick crime thrillers that latch onto the director’s nihilistic humor and breakneck pace, but forgo the pulp. Lars has the pop culture know-how of a classic Tarantino hero, making countless references to his cinematic idol, Steve McQueen in Bullitt, and even demanding a Mustang like the one Frank Bullitt drove. Like the Tarantino-flavored Free Fire last year, Stockholm revels in a sort of nihilistic humor and irreverent edge. And like Free Fire with John Denver songs, it seemed intent on making Bob Dylan the next needledrop king with the singer’s ’70s folk songs penetrating the tension and lending Stockholm a surreal quality.

It’s this surreal situation that makes the character drama so believable. The intimate exchanges between Lars and Bianca feel organic and earned, even as Bianca pleads with him to let her call her family. The movie goes out of its way to convince us that Lars is a sympathetic character, flying into a panic over his hostages’ well-being as often as he flies into a rage. In another person’s hands, Lars would have probably veered toward comic relief or even mentally disabled, but this incompetent, outrageous robber is given pathos by Hawke’s no-holds-barred performance. He’s supported by a revelatory turn by Rapace, who lends a quiet strength to Bianca, and Mark Strong’s stoic straight man.

But outside of the compelling character drama, Stockholm‘s politics are a little confused. Frequent radio and TV cutaways to Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate help establish the time period for audiences, but also seems to suggest a public distrust of the government. The prime minister and the police chief are painted almost like cartoonish villains — pushing us to side with Lars and the hostages. This is where the film falters, but only if you hold it up under the microscope as a loyal adaptation of a real-life event.

Instead, take Stockholm as it is: a suspenseful, riotous black comedy interlaced with moments of heartfelt emotion.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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