Stockholm Syndrome is a phenomenon we’re all familiar with — at least, in the abstract. In a hostage situation, some ordinary folks will start to sympathize and identify with the people holding them hostage; it’s a survival technique that carries a weird undercurrent of transgression, as if they secretly wanted to be their captors. In the most legendary and spectacular case of Stockholm Syndrome — the Patty Hearst affair, in 1974 — the kidnap victim swung all the way over to the other side. Yet that was far from typical. Patty, the 20-year-old heiress who wedded herself to the “revolutionary” Symbionese Liberation Army, sporting a beret and a born-again moniker (Tania!) and a machine gun, was more like a case of Stockholm Syndrome to the fifth power.
Far more characteristic is the bank robbery and six-day hostage crisis that the syndrome was originally named for. It took place in 1973, and “Stockholm” offers a loose, semi-fictionalized re-enactment of the event, starring Ethan Hawke as the robber and Noomi Rapace as his hostage-turned-ally, that suggests “Dog Day Afternoon” made by a filmmaker who can’t decide whether he’s pitching a docudrama or a sitcom. The opening title says “Based on an absurd but true story,” yet there’s nothing absurd about the facts. Improbable? Yes. Hapless and desperate? Most definitely. But the absurdity — the impulse to giggle — is mostly there in the eye of the writer-director, Robert Budreau, who collaborated with Hawke two years ago on the entrancing Chet Baker biopic “Born to Be Blue” but here comes off as a far less sure-handed filmmaker.
Yet he certainly gives you something to watch. In “Stockholm,” Lars Nystrom (Hawke), a loose cannon of an ex-convict, born in Sweden but raised in the U.S., puts on a cowboy hat, a pair of blue-tinted sunglasses, a leather jacket with an Alamo-era Texas flag on the back, and a wig that makes him look like a rowdy hippie biker, and he bursts into the palatial Kreditbanken. Spewing random threats and waving a machine gun, blasting Dylan tunes on his radio, Lars recalls many a half-cocked bank robber you’ve seen in the movies. Only it’s clear that for all his badass yelling, he’s really a pussycat.
He sends most of the bank’s customers and employees scurrying out the door, detaining just two of the workers (an additional one turns out to be squirreled away). Walking up to Bianca Lind (Rapace), who is cowering next to her desk, he asks to know whether she tripped the alarm, and when she confesses that she did, he replies, “That’s very good.” Lars, you see, isn’t just out to rob the bank; he wants to spring his old crime buddy, Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong), from prison. The authorities let Sorensson enter the bank as a mediator, and Lars soon finds himself in the exact same hostage situation that John Wotjowicz, the inspiration for Al Pacino’s Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon,” landed in during the botched Brooklyn bank heist that he masterminded the year before, in 1972. How slovenly and inept a criminal is Hawke’s Lars Nystrom? He’s so slovenly and inept that he makes Sonny look like Danny Ocean.
Enough filmmakers have nailed the early ’70s that even if you didn’t live through it, you can tell when a movie misses the era. In “Stockholm,” the hair and clothes are accurate in a costume-shop way, but the atmosphere is too slick and bright and punchy. The one performer with the right desultory presence is Noomi Rapace, under big glasses and long straight sandy blonde hair held back in a bun. Her Bianca just wants to stay alive and get home to her two children. The question is, what’s her best strategy?
Lars is demanding a million U.S. dollars, a clean exit from the bank, and an escape vehicle — “a Mustang 302, like Steve McQueen had in ‘Bullitt.’” It’s a sign of the sort of movie “Stockholm” is that that line plays less like a period detail than like a hipster film-buff reference. Lars negotiates with the police chief, Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl), and the prime minister, Olof Palme (Shanti Roney), who are portrayed as stoic caricatures of Scandinavian bureaucratic indifference. So, in a way, is Bianca’s husband (Thorbjørn Harr), whom she treats like the non-entity he is.
Her trust begins to shift over to Lars, because she has no faith in the system, no belief that it will save her. There’s a touch of leftover counterculture ‘tude in this stance, as there was in “Dog Day.” But that movie, even when it made you laugh, was never a joke. “Stockholm” portrays the Swedish authorities as a dour parade of scolds and stiffs, the semi-satirical thrust being that Stockholm Syndrome — citizens throwing their loyalty over to criminals — is just what these idiots deserve. The situation seems rigged to inspire audience reaction, but it doesn’t do a lot to explain the psychological thicket of Stockholm Syndrome.
Hawke give a wildly energized performance, driven by a blitzed spirit of reckless defiance that’s funny for having no coherent target. In this movie, what the hostages do mostly makes sense, whereas Lars is a screw-up with a chip on his shoulder. He hatches a plan that hinges on a fake killing: He pretends to shoot Bianca dead. But is she going along because she has to or because she “wants” to? The answer never adds up to much. Lars, Bianca, Sorensson, and the other two hostages form a community, yet this one doesn’t have the sweat-box reality of the ragtag crook-and-hostage cohort in “Dog Day Afternoon.” It comes closer to being the Stockholm Syndrome version of “Cheers.”