The very thing that makes hostage situations so messy and scary in real life is what makes them perfect film fodder. There’s a ticking clock, emotional highs and no end of character types: the criminal with the heart of gold; the cop about to retire; the guy who wasn’t even supposed to be there that day.
Humphrey Bogart became a star playing hostage-taker Duke Mantee in 1936’s The Petrified Forest. He would return to the genre in Key Largo (1948), revisit the character in a TV version of The Petrified Forest, and close out his career with another hostage drama, 1955’s The Desperate Hours. You could say his demands were met.
Ethan Hawke is the best thing in Stockholm, based on the 1973 Swedish bank heist that produced the term Stockholm Syndrome to describe captors who sympathize with their abductors. His character goes by several names, but when he marches into the Kreditbanken building in a shaggy wig and cowboy hat, he declares: “You can call me The Outlaw.”
Kaj Hansson (or Lars Nystrom, or The Outlaw) doesn’t seem sure of what he wants. His first demand is the release of his former confederate Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from prison. When Sorensson shows up, he says he also wants a million dollars and a getaway car like the one Steve McQueen had in Bullitt.
Meanwhile, he’s let most of his hostages go. Three remain, including Bianca (Noomi Rapace) who, when her husband is allowed to see her, gives him instructions for how to prepare dinner for their kids that night, in case she doesn’t make it back. It’s a darkly comedic moment that typifies the film’s mix of pathos and humour.
Stockholm was written and directed by Robert Budreau, drawing on a 1974 New Yorker article by Daniel Lang. It suggests that the hostages bonded with their captors over some games of cribbage and an apparent indifference to the Swedish Prime Minister; he refuses to let them leave with the kidnappers, despite their agreeing to it.
Then there’s the belligerent attitude of the cops, which had them fearing they’d be killed in crossfire. Certainly chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) isn’t doing anyone any favours when he huffs: “If they want our help, they need to show us some respect.” And he’s talking about the hostages here!
The script has the bones of a good story, but it might have developed more tension if it hadn’t jumped around so much. One minute we’re in the bank vault with the hostages, then the PM’s office, then police HQ, then with the reporters outside, etc. Add to this a subplot that has the cops trying to figure out The Outlaw’s true identity, and it’s a slippery narrative muddle.
But Hawke gives it his all in a noisy, messy, can’t-take-your-eyes off him performance. After they discover that a microphone has been slipped into the vault to keep tabs on them, he directs a conversation among the hostages, and talks about making them go hungry while silently carving up a pear for them to share.
It’s almost enough to make me forgive the movie its faults. Or maybe I just spent so long with the story that I started to identify with it.