Monday, February 08, 2021

Murderous Trance: Denmark’s Hypnosis Murders

Who knew yoga could be so sinister? That was the start of Bjorn Schouw Nielsen’s domination of his former cellmate, Palle Hardrup, but it was through brainwashing and hypnosis that he really lodged his hooks into his patsy. The case is particularly personal for Danish police detective Anders Olsen, who was also a veteran of the resistance, whereas Nielsen and Hardrup were convicted collaborators. Nielsen also develops a predatory interest in Olsen’s wife, further raising the stakes in Arto Halonen’s based-on-historical-facts English language thriller, Murderous Trance (a.k.a. The Guardian Angel), which releases tomorrow on DVD and VOD.

Technically, there is no denying Hardrup held-up at least one bank and fatally shot two employees. However, he almost certainly was not in his right mind. After consulting with Dr. Dabrowski, a psychiatrist and hypnosis expert, Olsen starts to suspect Hardrup was acting under the influence of post-hypnotic suggestion. According to Dabrowski, while it is true subjects will not commit an act that violates their moral-ethical code, they can be manipulated into doing just about anything, if the controlling party understands how to use their ideological convictions against them.

Predictably, Olsen’s former-collaborator-commander is less than thrilled with him consulting with a Jewish specialist, especially one with Dabrowski’s checkered history. Meanwhile, Nielsen starts cultivating a friendship with Olsen’s bookseller wife Marie, sensing her vulnerability after an unfortunate miscarriage.

A cursory online skimming suggests Halonen and co-screenwriters William Aldridge and Mitchell Bard hewed surprisingly close to the truth. There really was a case built around hypnosis. Yet, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the way Nielsen exploits Hardrup’s mutual interest in Eastern philosophy, yoga, and a weird brand of nationalism rooted in folk-volk Norse mysticism.

Far less compelling are Nielsen’s attempts to coopt Marie Olsen’s loyalties. As Nielsen, Josh Lucas projects such a weird, squirrely vibe, it is impossible to believe he could charm or seduce any reasonable person. Seriously, after their first meeting, she should have been running the other way, to take a disinfecting shower.

Frankly, the casting of
Trance is only so-so at best, starting with Sara Soulie, who taxes viewer patience and credibility as Marie Olsen. Pilou Asbaek is mostly just serviceable as Olsen, but he has one great scene when he finally opens up to Dabrowski (not exactly on his couch, but close enough).

In fact, Rade Serbedzija is far and away the most compulsively watchable person on the screen. As Dabrowski, he is convincingly sharp and somewhat prickly, while carrying himself like a man burdened with a lot of life’s baggage. Serbedzija is a truly great thesp, as Milcho Manchevski’s
Before the Rain can attest, but in recent years, he has been stuck playing too many Bond villains and the like. It is good to see him in a more human role here.

Halonen has helmed narrative dramas before, but the majority of his prior output has been documentaries, like the creepy but flawed-in-its-execution
Shadows of the Holy Book. Yet, throughout Trance he displays a keen visual sensibility. This is a great looking film with some fascinating subtext and backstories, but the work in front of the camera is far too inconsistent. There is some good stuff here, but intrigued viewers can probably wait until it pops up on one of their streaming subscription sites, which shouldn’t take long, since it releases tomorrow (2/9) on DVD and VOD.