Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Stockholm Movie Poster Image
Violent true-crime hostage dramedy makes bad guy likable.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 92 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Film is a psychological case study to help viewers understand "Stockholm syndrome," term used to describe phenomenon when people being held against their will develop a relationship with their captor.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A hostage shows courage, makes decisions that she believes will keep her and her fellow hostages safe. But her empathetic nature clouds her judgment, and eventually she helps the criminals. A felon takes responsibility for his actions and is made to be sympathetic; but he curses, drinks, does drugs, steals, intimidates/threatens with guns and knives, holds innocents captive, has sex with a married woman, and is in no way a role model.


Guns and knives are used to threaten people. Characters are shot, one graphically. Characters are tied up, with nooses put around their necks. Fistfighting; a man strikes a woman across the face. Tear gas and a minor explosion. Peril level is high. The perpetrator, a felon, is presented as a nice, likable guy, despite his criminal behavior; he does face consequences. Hostile shouting, including threats of violence.


A married woman makes out with her captor.


Several uses of "f--k," plus "a--hole," "shut up," and "Jesus Christ" (as an exclamation).


Characters talk about Mustang 302 as the ultimate cool car: "like Steve McQueen had in Bullitt."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Most of the characters -- bank robbers, detectives, hostages -- smoke. Captors include beer and cigarettes in their list of demands. A man takes a pill, later wants to take another to keep him awake. A man takes a swig of something that looks like bourbon.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Stockholm is a true-crime dark comedy starring Ethan Hawke. It's based on the 1973 Swedish bank robbery in which the hostages ended up siding with their captors, which spawned the term "Stockholm syndrome." While there's plenty here to inspire rousing debate about human psychology, the story does make light of a serious situation in order for viewers to sympathize with the "villain" (Hawke) -- just like the hostages did in real life. Hawke's character threatens bank employees with guns and knives, ties them up and puts nooses around their necks, screams "f--k," drinks, pops pills, and smokes (as do most of the other characters, given the movie's era/setting). He's not presented as a role model, but he is made likable -- depicted as a misguided but loyal friend who treats his captives with compassion and comfort. Conversely, law enforcement is shown as cold and uncaring, using the criminal's considerate nature against him. In the end, the movie is a bit of a rebuke on empathy.

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What's the story?

STOCKHOLM is based on the "absurd but true" story of a 1973 bank heist gone awry in Stockholm, Sweden, which resulted in the hostages siding with their captors against law enforcement. Ethan Hawke plays Lars Nystrom, the felon who stages the bank robbery and takes hostages, whom he wants to trade for his imprisoned best friend, Gunnar (Mark Strong). But when the Swedish prime minister refuses to let the criminals leave the scene with the hostages, drawing out the standoff over multiple days, the captives start to see the government as the enemy.

Is it any good?

We've all heard about something being too good to be true, but Stockholm may be an example of being too true to be good. "Stockholm syndrome" -- when a captive falls for their captor -- is such a preposterous phenomenon that it's become a punchline, and writer-director Robert Budreau runs with that notion. The term's origin story is given a whimsical tone punctuated with OMG moments, but it's not actually ha-ha funny. In keeping with the "absurd but true" real-life situation, Hawke opens the film putting on an outlandish get-up -- a shaggy wig, a Lone Star state leather jacket, and toy store glasses -- just like the real criminal who robbed KreditBanken in 1973. Lars brings games and a radio to entertain the hostages he knew he'd be taking. He sings Bob Dylan and dreams about Steve McQueen's car from Bullitt. And, just like in real life, when a young bank teller in his custody starts her period, he includes a box of tampons in his list of demands. Chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) nails it: "He's a softie." And, once the police chief knows that, the hostage negotiation changes strategy, becoming its own psychological experiment.

Hawke has an entire filmography that proves he's great at playing a cad, a cutie, and a cut-up, so it's all in a day's work to throw all three together into a believable sympathetic screw-up. The audience gets Lars, and so does Bianca (Noomi Rapace), the married mother of two who is Lars' favorite hostage. But the film's purpose is to demonstrate how someone can find affection for a bank robber who regularly puts a gun to her temple, and that never quite translates. It's clear why the captives believe their best chance for survival is to side with the bad guys, and somewhat understandable that the bond they forged would lead them to protect their captors from untrustworthy cops. The romance part, though, is blurry: Bianca is a willing participant, but is she making out with Lars because she feels affection or because she wants to ensure her safety? Stockholm is entertaining and to some degree enlightening, but it doesn't deliver the understanding or the laughs that the premise promises. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Stockholm syndrome, a mental condition in which hostages develop a kinship with their captors as a means of survival that's believed to affect about 8 percent of those who are held captive. Do you believe it's real? Do you think it serves a function? 

  • Do the characters in Stockholm demonstrate empathy? Is that an important character strength? Can someone have too much empathy? What would be an example?

  • Can anyone in this film be considered a role model? Why do they do the things they do? 

  • Is Bianca brave, or is she in survival mode? What's the difference? 

  • How are law enforcement personnel portrayed? How does that compare to the way the bank robbers are depicted? What outcome were you rooting for? Why do you think movies sometimes like to make heroes out of those who break the law? Is there something good that can come out of finding empathy for those who do wrong?

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