Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Trap (2007)

AKA Klopka

Isolation and Murder in The Trap

“I’m trying to do at least something right in the end.”

The Trap (Klopka) a Serbian noir film from director Srdan Golubovic asks the question: what’s a life worth? Main character Mladen (Nebojsa Glogovac) finds out the hard way that some lives come with a huge price tag while others are worth nothing at all. This excellent noir examines one man trapped by circumstance who accepts his fate but cannot live with the consequences. The Trap is set in modern Serbia--a society in flux, struggling to heal after years of communism, the raw open wounds of civil war, and a period of insane hyperinflation. A nation no longer a dominant component of the former Yugoslav state, Serbia’s new burgeoning economy includes the sale of state-owned companies to privately owned businesses, creating monopolies and huge profits for those lucky enough to be on the receiving end. Hard-working, honest people fight to survive while the Serbian Mafia prospers. Money appears to flow like water for some, and this is evidenced by the flashy mansions that are springing up all over Belgrade. At the same time, street urchins pester people for money by washing cars at stoplights, and this contrast in circumstances emphasizes both the upheaval of the new society and the transience of life.

The film, a frame story, opens with Mladen staring out over the vast city from his apartment balcony. He then makes a short phone call, takes a gun from the table and leaves his home. The next scene shows Mladen ringing a doorbell. Once inside, a badly bruised, jittery Mladen smokes and talks directly to the camera and an unseen audience as he attempts to explain his actions. “None of this should’ve happened,” he says as he begins his story...

The film quickly shifts to the recent past. Mladen and his wife, teacher Marija (Natasa Ninkovic) and their 8-year-old son Nemanja (Marko Djurovic) live in a tiny, modestly furnished flat in Belgrade, they drive a tatty old car, the state-owned company Mladen works for is going through a painful privatization process, and in spite of the fact that Marija and Mladen are professionals, they don’t have much money. But these problems operate at an acceptable level, and overall Marija and Mladen are happy.

Life abruptly changes when Nemanja is rushed to the hospital, and his anxious parents are told that their son needs an operation to correct a heart muscle problem. To complicate matters, they are told that the operation cannot be performed in Belgrade, and that they will need to travel to Germany for the procedure. Bottom line, they need 26,000 Euros for the operation plus travel expenses. Desperately, Mladen and Marija hit up friends and relatives for a loan, but no one in their circle has money to help.

The child’s physician, Dr Lukic (Bogdan Dicklic) suggests placing an advertisement in the paper explaining Nemanja’s story and begging for help. In one of the film’s many quiet, deceptively simple scenes hinting of the desperation of daily life in Belgrade, the paper is shown full of similar adverts--all from people hoping for the kindness and generosity of strangers to make miracles happen. But the miracle doesn’t happen for Mladen and Marija. This flush of advertising reinforces the idea of two Belgrades: the Belgrade of poverty and deprivation that Mladen, now in adversity, understands, and the Belgrade of the newly-rich with their decadent “hideous villas” who fund their lives with money wrung from suspicious circumstances. Marija pins all her hopes on the advert, and by placing the ad and checking their bank account balance, she has the false sensation that she’s ‘doing’ something about getting the money. At the same time, she berates Mladen for his inaction.

In one of the film’s clever scenes emphasizing the idea that money flows in Belgrade--just not to the right things, Marija has begun privately tutoring one of her spoiled, wealthy students. At first Marija refused due to the questionable ethics of the situation, but then agreed, bowing under the desperate pressure for money. While this becomes the extent of Marija’s moral dilemma (how far she will go to get money for her son), the scene is yet another glimpse of two Belgrades. When she visits the student, Marija spots a huge, ostentatious frame hanging empty and useless, and she discovers that the girl’s father bought the frame on a whim for 30,000 Euros--the exact sum they seek for their son.

In another scene, Mladen is turned down for a bank loan by a lowly, grinning bank teller. Mladen initially assumes the teller is insensitive since he grins while he explains that the loan has been declined. But the clerk is not unsympathetic; he whispers that this is an American-owned bank and that he’s monitored to ensure that he smiles at all the customers. If he fails to smile, he’s fired. The clerk’s explanation diffuses Mladen’s anger as he realizes that the clerk is just another working stiff like him, trapped by his humiliating need for money.

In the meantime, Nemanja’s condition is progressing. Feeling helpless and frustrated, Mladen and Marija begin fighting. And then, finally, there’s a response to the advert. Marija is sure they have a benefactor. Mladen, while more cautious than his wife, still hopes that they’ve stumbled across someone wealthy enough to help. He goes to meet the caller, a weathered, well-dressed businessman in a spacious, upscale restaurant. This is the sort of plush restaurant that Mladen and Marija could never afford, but it’s obviously a bustling business frequented by those with money to burn. The man, Kosta Antic (Miki Manojlovic) offers to give Mladen 30,000 Euros plus tickets to Germany. The catch? Mladen has to kill someone. Kosta reassures Mladen that the target is ‘bad’ for the country and that “He’ll be missed by no one.” As it turns out, the target, Ivkovic (Dejan Cukic), a man connected to organized crime, is married to Jelena (Anica Dobra) a young woman whose daughter plays with Nemanja.

Mladen at first refuses but then agrees to the murder-for-hire scheme as he witnesses Nemanja’s rapidly deteriorating physical condition and Marija’s inability to cope. While Marija comes unglued because there are no options, Mladen, who is already a quiet, introverted man, sinks deeper into himself; he has an option, a choice, but that choice is to kill another human being in order to save his son. Marija interprets Mladen’s depression incorrectly, and she sees him as indifferent. There’s one moment when he reaches out to explain, but she cuts off any exchange of confidences, and soon the two are at each other’s throats….

Taking the life of another human being is the ultimate moral decision, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s one of these sneaky questions that pops up for discussion in Philosophy 101 classes. The professor asks: would you kill someone? And the answer, at first a resounding “NO!” becomes gradually shaped by extenuating circumstances and reasoning. In film, we’ve seen these plot elements a thousand times but rarely has ‘the trap’ been captured so exquisitely through the utter bleakness and isolation of the moral choice facing Mladen. The film presents Mladen’s dilemma to create maximum viewer identification. Mladen is a quiet, hard-working stiff who minds his own business and who puts in a decent day’s work, thinking that there will be a payoff for good behaviour. But there isn’t. His son is dying; his wife hates him for his inability to ‘do something,’ and meanwhile here’s this perfect stranger offering to fix Mladen’s problems with one little bullet. Perhaps some people wouldn’t quibble at murder, but Mladen does, and Mladen’s moral struggle--admirable under the circumstances--signals one man’s descent to hell.

Any moral decision of magnitude demands a certain isolation of thought and judgment, but whereas some moral decisions can be discussed, others cannot. Marija, the only person Mladen could discuss his dilemma with, cuts off any possibility of discussion, and effectively strands Mladen in an agonizing moral wasteland. Ultimately, his desire to save his son supercedes any other moral consideration, and left in isolation to make his decision, Mladen chooses to commit murder. The film captures and underscores Mladen’s bleak isolation through beautifully realized high-angled shots that emphasize Mladen’s space within the urban landscape, his insignificance in society, and his irrevocable descent into hell. Mladen becomes the sort of person who can commit murder, but it’s what happens after the crime, and not the murder itself, that makes The Trap such an incredibly good noir film.

Written by Guy Savage


1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great film. I will make a point of checking this out as soon as possible.

    Thanks for the excellent tip.


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