Genre: Neo-Noir/Crime Thriller
Year Released: 2007
Distributor: Film Movement
Running Time: 106 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 15+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Human Capital, Breaking Bad, Taken, Before Your Eyes
Notes: Netflix lists the villain’s name as Milos, but it is really Kosta.
-Three of the actors in this film were also in the 1992 film Tito and Me.
-At the time of this review, Marija’s actress Natasa Ninkovic has won every acting or film award she’s been nominated for since 1998 including winning the Best Actress Award at the Nis International Film Festival for her role in The Trap.
-This is based on a novel by Serbian author Nenad Telofilovic.
-There have been talks about an American remake of this film with Liam Neeson playing the lead role. The tentative title for this potential remake is called Fair Trade.
I’ve been sensing an unintentional theme with some of the movies I’ve been watching and reviewing lately. I’ve noticed elements of class struggle and showing main characters in middle-class or underclass situations dealing with depressing elements of their lives. This trend continues with the Serbian film with The Trap.
This film deals with a middle-class father named Mladen Pavlovic. He works at a struggling civil engineering firm while his wife Marija teaches English at a local high school in Belgrade. They’re making end’s meet despite not living in a well-to-do area and reside in a small apartment. However, all of that changes when their young son Nemanja has seizures and becomes very ill. The doctors tell that family that they’re best shot of curing him would be to go to Germany to get the operation done. Here’s the catch, the operation would cost 26,000 Euros which they don’t have. Both parents try to figure out ways to get the money and Marija resorts to putting an ad in the local paper mentioning their plight. Mladen disagrees with this method, but he gets a call from a shady man named Kosta Antic. He’s willing to pay the Pavlovics 30,000 Euros which would cover not only the operation, but also the travel expenses and then some. In order for Kosta to pay Mladen, he has to agree to murder a business executive.
Yup. It’s a movie that begs the question of how far a parent would go to save their child’s life especially since he has a terminal condition. This may remind some people of Breaking Bad minus the drug aspect even though The Trap came first. No, I’m not saying Breaking Bad is a ripoff since the plot is completely different despite having a similar theme of doing illegal things to save the family. There’s a lot of moral complexities as Mladen is conflicted in his quest to get that money to save Nemanja without telling Marija or his workers. The cinematography isn’t some big-budget epic, but it’s well done. Since it’s a neo-noir environment, there’s a lot of shadows, stark contrast, and soft lighting to accentuate the mood of this dark movie. One recurring image that I noticed as I watched this film were scenes that look like Mladen is trapped with how the shots were framed. There’s a scene with ajar doors with Mladen in the middle, hospital blinds where he’s in between them, and in the last few minutes of the movie where there’s a close-up shot of his face behind an ajar door with the chain lock showing. It was a great artistic motif of Mladen being closed off by his guilt and actions. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I thought it was great symbolism nonetheless. Even the scene with him in the hospital and it cuts to Nemanja’s smiling face despite the oxygen mask on him is quite bittersweet.
Besides the murder plot that drives The Trap, this film is also a subtle satire of Serbia over a decade after Milosevic’s reign in the former Yugoslavia nation. It’s not about him being in power per se, but you see the crumbling economy and the growing economic gap between the rich and poor. With Mladen’s job, they are in the middle of being privatized by a Belgian company which represents the real-life acquisition of companies by richer European nations. The people who deny the loans work for a foreign-owned bank and worry about being fired for not smiling despite insulting Mladen’s situation. The biggest depiction where Marija goes to one of her student’s house where she’s from a rich family. Said student owns artwork that’s more expensive than Nemanja’s surgery and wears a Mickey Mouse shirt while bragging about her family’s possessions which could represent the influence of American prosperity despite being in the Eastern Bloc. Even when Kosta is confronted by Mladen in the third act of the film, he coldly states that not all lives are worth the same and uses examples of the 9/11 victims’ families getting different amounts of settlement money depending on their socioeconomic class and race. These are subtle things that really drive the message of an economic divide, and the fact that this was made a year before the Great Recession makes the situation look harsher if one thinks about it.
The plot itself is intriguing despite some predictable things. It’s obvious that Mladen is going to kill his assigned target Petar Ivkovic, but it was a matter of when. That’s not a spoiler since anyone would be able to figure it out once Nemaja’s situation gets worse before the halfway point of the film. I figured that there would be a cycle of vengeance subplot once the funeral scene kicked in, but I wasn’t sure how they were going to pull it off given several plot twists that happen later on. They did enact that moral, but in a way that I didn’t expect which was great. I’m a bit of a sucker for cycle of vengeance storylines since those are a rarity in several American films and TV. Most of the time, I’ve seen them done poorly. What made this take on that moral fascinating was that there were no innocent ones. Ivkovic has done some bad things including to Kosta in the past, so the moral ambiguity works so well in the characterization. Even some of the worst people in this movie have their own regrets. Mladen has a great quote where he says that as a child he wished that “life was like a film, so you can rewind…and start over.” That was a powerful line which really defines his character.
Despite the strong acting and moral ambiguity, there were a couple of qualms. I wished they would have shown more things about Petar Ivkovic and his life. Some of the bad things he’s done were implied, but I would have liked to have seen more of that. One scene that I found unbelievable was when Mladen is in the police station after getting beat up by some rich college-aged kids. After describing the incident and potential charges, he confesses to murdering Ivkovic. He tells the whole truth in vivid detail to the interrogator, but the policeman doesn’t even believe his true story and dismisses his case since the murder of Ivkovic is a very serious case and wouldn’t listen to some random guy even though he’s the one responsible for that businessman’s death. I get that the murder was done outside of Ivkovic’s circle of phony rich business buddies, but I shook my head a bit. They would’ve arrested him right away in real life since the victim was a wealthy man. Also, the ending is obvious, but it’s left ambiguous. That may confuse some viewers despite being brilliantly shot.
The Trap is an exquisite Neo-noir thriller that handles it’s themes well. There’s solid acting from everyone involved. The subtle imagery and setting with classism was brilliant. The plotting is a bit flawed, but more than makes up for it’s shortcomings. If you want to check out an intense movie that really questions elements of class, parenting, and crime itself, then check out this hidden Serbian gem.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you like thrillers
Subtract 2 points if you want a clear cut ending
-Shows the elements of a crumbling economy and the ramifications of that situation
-Creative framing and shots
-Ambiguous ending could be a bummer to some despite the obvious action involved
-Lack of plotting for Petar Ivkovic’s character and life
-Some predictable plot elements
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: I would say older teens and up. There’s some brief strong language with Kosta and Petar respectively. Obviously, the plot involves a murder so there’s some violence involved including a scene of domestic abuse later in the film. The themes are quite mature which make this for older viewers who can handle the subject matter and morality questions involved.
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