Can (or should) a movie about Stockholm syndrome even try to tell a story that inherently sympathizes with an attacker?
“Absurd but true” is the way Stockholm characterizes its own story—and sure enough, in a film about the 1973 Norrmalmstorg robbery that inspired the term “Stockholm syndrome,” it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate frame. This is perhaps the central question of the whole film: to what extent is it okay to tell a story that inherently sympathizes with an attacker? Can (or should) a movie about Stockholm syndrome even try?
The movie opens with the words of Kreditbanken teller Bianca Lind (Noomi Rapace): “I can’t stop thinking about what happened with us.” We see a close glimpse of her face, and then we move straight to the image of a sun-glittering, peaceful Stockholm pier where Ethan Hawke’s character, Lars Nystrom, is sailing in to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “New Morning.” Birds are flying above the blue water; Lars is combing his mustache. He practices his fake identity, then slips on his disguise: a wig of long, messy brown hair, a cowboy hat, sunglasses and a super-American jacket, leather with a red, white and blue flag on the back. “I’m the outlaw,” he says, revving himself up.
This is the first of many similar glimpses we see of Lars. Even though Bianca’s are the first words we hear, Lars is the first one we really meet. He’s clearly meant to come off as dynamic, as magnetic, as someone you want to get to know—both the audience and Bianca, the one of the three hostages we get to know the most. Hawke plays Lars as convincingly hard-eyed and less-than-completely reasonable, to the point that you think maybe he would do something to hurt somebody, but also balancing this with a sense of insecurity that comes off as charming.
One of the most interesting decisions Stockholm makes is to take a political approach, largely through Lars’ character but also through its depictions of law enforcement. Lars, with his stars-and-stripes jacket and Bob Dylan radio choices and desire for a Mustang “like Steve McQueen had in Bullitt,” is an in-your-face level of American. He even makes a big, show-stopping entrance at the bank, shouting, “Remember the Alamo!” And in moments like his entrance on the boat—or later, when he’s joking with the police or playing card games with the hostages—he seems to represent a kind of freedom and independence often aesthetically linked (whether or not this is really valid) with the States.
The Swedish authorities, on the other hand, are depicted as callous and relatively inept; at one point, when Bianca is asked whether she and the other hostages trust their captor, she goes so far as to respond, “More than we trust our police.” The cops are the bad guys here, they’re no mistaking it—they’re the cruel figures who would, for instance, use tear gas on an injured woman in order to try to back down on a negotiation. This characterization seems like an attempt to make Lars seem more human and relatable by comparison; he represents a side of life freer, truer and more fun than what the authorities have to offer
Of course, this side is also fraught with violence and danger, including the danger in which Bianca and the other hostages find themselves. Rapace carefully portrays Bianca falling for Lars slowly, and for her own reasons. Bianca feels like the realest of all the characters; perhaps the most emotionally wrenching scene of the entire film is when she’s able to speak to her husband, and she walks him through the process of making dinner for their family that night in case she doesn’t make it home. Lars tells Bianca at one point that she’s unbelievably brave, and he’s right. Her bravery is in some sense forced upon her in the moment, as she finds herself navigating this impossible situation, but she makes several important decisions—some of them subtle, some less so—in her efforts to make it through this scenario on her own terms, to the extent that she can.
Maybe this is why the film ends where it began, with Bianca reflecting on the events of the bank robbery. While visiting Lars in prison, she tells him, “I still have a scar on my back because of you, but I’m alive. I survived.” This feels like the film’s final concession that Lars’s destructive role can’t be overlooked, just as Bianca’s survivalist instincts can’t be ignored. There was a captor/captive dynamic at the core of their relationship, but after a certain point, Lars wasn’t just trying to rob a bank, and Bianca wasn’t just trying to survive. The film as a whole encourages sympathizing with Lars, in part because it also leads us to sympathize so strongly with Bianca and her sympathy for him. But it also takes care not to sway too far into the sphere of the aggressor, landing instead on Bianca’s side of things. Even if we can’t fully understand her, we certainly can’t blame her, either.