The Captor (aka Stockholm) (2018)

The Captor (aka Stockholm) first published by

Following the excellent Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue (2015), Robert Budreau’s latest feature to star Ethan Hawke comes with a dual identity. For it was originally called Stockholm (where it is also set), but is now being released under the name The Captor. Bring those two titles together, and you can guess that the film will be concerned with so-called ‘Stockholm syndrome‘, that strange condition wherein captives are drawn into a psychological sympathy with their captors – and in case you were unaware of the alternative title, the film’s prologue spells out this theme, as Bianca (Noomi Rapace) discusses with an unseen male how their past experience together is now being called Stockholm syndrome. Indeed, the film takes us back to the origins of the term – an ‘absurd but true’ sequence of events in 1973 Sweden when an armed robber enters Stockholm’s Kreditbanken and creates what a reporter outside classes ‘the first ever hostage crisis in Sweden’, playing out live on national – and eventually international – television.

The captor, played by Hawke and going by the name Kaj Hansson, demands to have his partner-in-crime Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) sprung from jail, to be given one million unmarked US dollars, and to be allowed to drive off with his hostages Bianca, Klara (Bea Santos) and Elov (Mark Rendall) in a Mustang 302 (“like Steve Mc Queen had in Bullitt“) that Police Chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) will arrange to have parked out front. On the surface, ‘Kai’ is a vicious, volatile, violent man, firing off rounds into the air to get everybody’s attention, aiming his machine gun directly at Bianca and threatening – repeatedly – to shoot her or Klara in the face if he does not get what he wants. Yet he is a contradictory figure, courteously holding the door for an elderly customer as he enters the bank, providing music and games for his hostages, and making a captive policeman sing Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You down the phone (“What kind of cop doesn’t like Dylan? What kind of person doesn’t like Dylan?”). Indeed, like the long-haired wig, leather jacket and cowboy hat that we see him donning just before the robbery, Kai’s aggressive bluster is all part of a disguise. Even his adopted name Kai is a front for his real identity as Lars Nystrom (although that too, like all the names here, has been changed from those in the true-crime story on which The Captor is based). 

Stockholm syndrome is also a useful metaphor for the effect on an audience of any film focused on criminals. It is only natural for viewers to want to root for a protagonist and to hope that they manage to overcome adversity and achieve their aims – so if that protagonist is a bad person with wicked, selfish or sociopathic ends in mind, then a strange frisson is created as viewers find themselves sympathising with the devil. Writer/director Budreau plays this game twice over, both making Lars the centre of the narrative, and also making him a slippery mix of contrary qualities, so that, as the siege goes on, we discover our own feelings towards this self-styled ‘outlaw’ in cowboy getup becoming as confused as the hostages’. It helps that Lars is played with such mercurial, boyish charm by Hawke. From early on it is clear that Lars’ belligerent, shouty menace is all pose, (barely) concealing a good-natured softness underneath, and he will prove a manipulative master of heist as performance piece. On the other hand, Police Chief Mattsson, whose ego is bruised time and time again by his encounters with Lars, shows an increasing willingness to regard the hostages as acceptable collateral damage. 

So as time passes, Bianca’s and the others’ growing distrust for the police, and their shift in allegiance towards Lars, are easy to understand, not least because it matches our own alignment as viewers. A scene in which Mattsson brings in Bianca’s husband Christopher (Thorbjørn Harr) to speak with her slyly reveals the suffocating nature of her domestic life beyond the bank, as she spends all her limited time with Christopher surreally giving step-by-step instructions in how to prepare their children’s herring dinner. It is hardly surprising that Bianca, as a woman who works a full-time job but is still expected to cook and clean and rear the children when she gets home, should feel an attraction to a man who sees her for who she is, who refuses to play by society’s oppressive rules, and who embodies the kind of escapism and freedom of which she can only dream. During the initial hold-up, Bianca’s hands are bound behind her back – but she is already tied down by marriage and children, so that, for all her fantasies of liberation, she knows that her ship has already sailed. In the prologue (also a flash forward, reprised at the film’s end) Bianca provides the definition of the condition that she is said to have suffered: “You fall for your captor – so they say” – and the hesitancy of those last three words serves as a question mark cast over the whole film. For as Lars constantly stages the action and merely plays at being a stone-cold killer (with Bianca and the others sometimes in on the act), The Captor might, amid all its double bluffs and duplicities, its subterfuge and theatricality, itself only be pretending to be a film about the psychology of Stockholm syndrome, while in fact telling the story of an intelligent, unhappy woman finding her best way not only to survive a tense situation but also briefly to live a more exciting life on her own terms.

Along the way, Lars overtly styles his own escapades after the model of contemporary films, with Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968), George Roy’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and  Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) – which Lars has seen three times – all duly name-checked. The Captor itself is both like and unlike these paradigms, as it offers a weird, often very funny thrill ride through the heist movie’s countercultural tropes, while constantly defying our expectations of the genre with wild curveballs pitched from reality itself. That traffic between truth and fiction is where the film’s own duality holds out, exposing a robbery as a continuous exercise in feints and fakery from all sides.

Summary: Robert Budreau’s reimagining of the heist that gave us the term Stockholm syndrome is a strange, funny masquerade.

© Anton Bitel