"Stockholm" raises some intriguing questions, among them: Does anyone ever suggest to Ethan Hawke that he can afford to do a teensy bit less, even in a flamboyant, 110-percent sort of role?
Coming off his finest screen work to date in Paul Schrader's "First Reformed," where he convincingly burrowed into the recesses of a tortured man of the cloth, the endlessly resourceful actor returns to extra-relish mode in this mordantly comic drama based on a notorious 1973 Stockholm bank robbery. The robbery and subsequent hostage crisis inspired its own psychological condition: the "Stockholm syndrome," describing a situation wherein hostages develop a close, sympathetic relationship to their captors.
Here's the real stuff. For six days, while on leave from prison, a man named Jan-Erik Olsson robbed a Stockholm bank and took four hostages in a vault while negotiating with police. Olsson's primary demand was to have the authorities deliver his old friend, Clark Olofsson, to the hostage scene. The two men and their captives hit it off, and morphed into an unpredictable unit of togetherness.
The movie, written and directed by Robert Budreau, retains some of the facts while going its own way. The relationship between Hawke's fictionalized character, Lars, and his prison buddy and onetime roommate, Gunnar (a droll Mark Strong), dominates the pressure-cooker scenario. The screenplay's most conspicuously tricked-up invention involves Lars' push/pull dynamic with one of the hostages, bank teller Bianca, played by Noomi Rapace of the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy. In "Stockholm," the on-screen Swedes speak in accented English; Hawke's character is said to be Swedish by birth but raised in Texas.
"There's an American with a big gun!" bank employee Bianca says over the phone early in "Stockholm," and the minute we see Hawke's character, toting a machine gun and hollering like an entire male chorus of "Paint Your Wagon," it's clear Budreau's movie owes a large debt to Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon." The robbery attempt showcases a miscreant with a heart, a few insecurities and a very short fuse. Lars negotiates for a Mustang as a getaway vehicle, like the one Steve McQueen drove in "Bullitt." In one sequence the hostages and their captors discuss the heartless coolness of another McQueen vehicle, "The Getaway." The movie's movie-ness permeates the telling, for better or worse.
The smooth, if generic, filmmaking technique plays it straight while the deadpan humor fills in some details. Rapace has an effective bit of dialogue when the teller instructs her distraught husband in the proper method of cooking herring while she's otherwise engaged. Some of this works, though a lot of "Stockholm" feels indecisive. For a supposed examination (in whatever key) of the entanglements that became a syndrome, "Stockholm" really doesn't get into it much psychology. The situation, as presented here, isn't unbelievable, exactly. It's just oddly dull.
Hawke is not. He is doing something every second: wagging a cigarette up and down in his mouth, strutting around, screaming at Pacino "Dog Day" levels at regular intervals. He's such a good actor at his best, and his best performances aren't only in the quieter, ruminative vein of "First Reformed" or "Boyhood."
All the same: The performance that sticks with me in "Stockholm" comes from Christopher Heyerdahl, as the sly, gaunt strategist of a police chief. In one scene (one shot, in fact) of Heyerdahl squaring up against a subordinate over how to deal with the hostage crisis, a proficiently made feather of a movie suddenly turns into a vivid illustration of acting that is both expansive and minutely focused in the same breath.
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