Thriller, not rated, 102 minutes, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 2.5 chiles
A man wearing a ski mask robs a bank, dispassionately kills two clerks, and is quickly captured. He claims he was acting alone, but witnesses report that he seemed to be in some kind of trance, and a suspicion emerges that he was acting under hypnotic suggestion. The mesmerizing mastermind is soon identified. The plot becomes not a whodunnit, but a how-did-he-do-it, a race to unravel the Gordian knot of hypnotic control that the villain has placed in the mind of his stooge.
It’s a plot that reeks of artifice, of ’30s B-movie camp. The saving grace? It’s based on a true story, the bizarre “hypnosis murders” that captured headlines in Copenhagen in the early 1950s.
Finnish writer/director Arto Halonen has taken the bones of this story and fashioned them into an English-language drama that is part police procedural, part psychological thriller, and part romantic melodrama. How much of it is actual fact we can only guess at. It’s easier to tell what works and what doesn’t.
The best thing in this uneven movie is the riveting performance of Josh Lucas. He dominates the proceedings as Bjørn Schouw Nielsen, the charismatic villain who shared a prison cell with the hapless perp, a Danish Nazi collaborator named Palle Hardrup (Cyron Melville), and took over his mind like a malignant virus on a hard drive. Lucas practically licks his chops as he toys with police inspector Anders Olsen (Pilou Asbæk, of Game of Thrones) and hypnosis expert Dr. Dabrowski (the great Rade Serbedzija), and insinuates himself into the affections of Olsen’s loyal but neglected wife Marie (Sara Soulié).
Olsen’s not your classic movie detective. He’s a bit of a bumbler. He gets tricked a couple of times: first while in hot pursuit of the bank robber, and later (and more elaborately) by Nielsen. And he’s not particularly clever or charismatic or sexy. Those qualities go to Nielsen. But Olsen is dogged, and he sticks to his theory of hypnotic mind control in the face of official hostility and repeated setbacks.
The movie survives the occasional misstep to build a pretty decent thriller, buttressed by the knowledge of its factual underpinnings. But it goes off the rails as it builds to its final twist, a plot contrivance that could only have come from the mind of a writer bent on improving on the facts of the case. And you can spot it a mile off.