He’s erratic and excitable. She’s calm and practical.
They collide in “Stockholm” when he bursts into a bank in the city of the title and takes her hostage at gunpoint. That ignites a media firestorm as the cops surround the building and gives rise to the term “Stockholm syndrome.”
It’s a real-life 1973 incident that provides the basis for writer-director Robert Budreau’s gripping picture.
He changed their names. The robber’s real name was Jan-Erik Olsson. In the movie, he’s Lars Nystrom. Ethan Hawke plays him. His hostage, bank officer Bianca Lind, is a composite figure played by Noomi Rapace.
Budreau took liberties with the details of the nearly weeklong standoff with the police, which was carried on live television, to present a portrait of people in an emotional pressure cooker. In the course of their ordeal, the hostages (there are three in the movie) develop an empathy with their captors — Lars, a convict, has an accomplice, another convict Gunnar Sorensson (played by Mark Strong) — that leads them to side with the gunmen during negotiations with the authorities. That empathy came to be known as the Stockholm syndrome.
Hawke, who previously starred in Budreau’s 2015 Chet Baker biopic “Born To Be Blue,” attacks his role with relish. A Swede, Lars is a self-dramatizing powder keg who’s enamored of American pop culture. He likens himself and Gunnar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He demands that the cops provide him a getaway car that’s the same make and model as the Mustang Steve McQueen drove in “Bullitt.”
His volatility and his armaments (a submachine gun, a pistol and a fearsome-looking knife) keep everyone on edge. And yet, besieged, Bianca maintains her composure. Allowed to speak on the phone with her husband, she instructs him to prepare herring for dinner for him and their two children, tells him to get it out of the fridge and unhurriedly gives him the recipe. “And if I die,” she tells him, “you can live on fish.” It’s funny. It’s poignant.
She also wants to know what makes Lars tick, asking him about himself, getting out of him that he has an ex-wife and a son. But, he insists, “That’s not me. That’s not who I am,” desperate to make a clean break with his past.
She tells him about her children and brings him to the realization of what’s at stake in his wild gambit when she calmly says, “I would like to see them again.”
Lars is impressed. “You’re unbelievably brave you know,” he tells her.
When Gunnar likens Lars to a child, Bianca recognizes that’s so and develops sympathy and even romantic feelings for this immature man, which leads her to tell the Swedish prime minister in a phone call to let the robbers leave with the hostages and not try to thwart their escape.
With the robbers and hostages locked in a vault and the police drilling through the ceiling, Budreau ratchets up the tension.
Thanks to the excellence of its two key performances, “Stockholm” an uncommonly effective thriller, one with a heart and a brain.
★★★ “Stockholm,” with Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace, Mark Strong. Written and directed by Robert Budreau. 91 minutes. Rated R for language and brief violence. Opens April 26 at multiple theaters.