An ordinary man becomes a killer to save the life of his child in “The Trap,” a psychologically dense if rather contrived tale of post-Milosevic Serbia directed by Srdan Golubovic (“Absolute Hundred.”) Aiming at being a dignified, socially relevant drama, the film struggles through a set-up of film noir/gangster movie tropes until becoming more engrossing in its second half. With Anica Dobra and Miki Manojlovic in the cast, this cleanly lensed Serbian-German-Hungarian co-production could elbow its way into limited theatrical release, before making its main haul in the ancillary markets.
Underpaid engineer Mladen (Nebojsa Glogovac) and his wife Marija (Natasa Ninkovic) are a young middle-class couple living with their 10-year-old son in Belgrade and struggling to make ends meet. When the boy is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that requires immediate surgery abroad, they are at a loss to find $30,000 for the operation. With no other option, Marija swallows her pride and puts an appeal in the paper for donations.
The only person who answers the ad is the mysterious Milos (Miki Manojlovic), who makes Mladen an indecent proposal: the money in exchange for murdering a business rival. At first Mladen is repulsed, but when the boy’s condition becomes critical, he has second thoughts.
Based on a play, script by Srdan Koljevic (“Sky Hook”) and Melina Potakogevic takes place mostly in cramped interiors and a few sloped streets in downtown Belgrade. The claustrophobic atmosphere heightens the moral and dramatic choice Mladen must make, but offers little in the way of visual excitement. That TV feeling creeps into the hospital scenes where the anxious parents talk to the doctor, as well as the trumped-up quarrels between Mladen and Marija at home, which are inserted only for dramatic convenience.
More interesting is watching nice-guy Mladen’s slow descent into a moral black hole of criminality and cowardice. In a culminating scene of genuine tension, he bursts into Milos’ over-furnished house and turns on him like a vicious animal, driving home the theme of collapsing moral values.
Other nice touches highlight the bizarre social universe of Belgrade, where expensive SUVs roam the streets beside rusty tin cans from the Socialist era, and where one little boy begs his parents for a mobile phone on his way to school, while a child his age begs for money at traffic lights. These acutely observed details beam a sharp image of life in today’s Serbia.
Principals Glogovac and Ninkovic are troopers who approach their roles with deadly seriousness and professionalism. As the ambiguous Milos, Manojlovic is a fascinating study of a hollow man constructed out of lies. Most memorable character, however, played by Anica Dobra, is a gangster’s beautiful, sensitive wife who befriends Mladen because she believes he’s a good man.