Schoolboys play mindgames in this intense and disturbing state-of-the-nation address from Sweden.
Deploying an austere style which harks back to Michael Haneke’s similarly observant study of contemporary multicultural stress, Code Unknown, director Ruben Östlund opens his film Play with a seven-minute surveillance-like shot of a shopping mall. With minimal camera movement, he observes a group of five boys of African descent hoodwink two affluent white youngsters out of a mobile phone using a convoluted role-play game.
The black boys later move on to some more hapless prey (two white Swedish boys and one of Asian heritage) and their interaction — an extended game of psychological trickery across a host of desolate, beautifully-shot locations — forms the film’s narrative spine.
Complex issues of class, race and consumerism arise while Östlund looks on impassively. A recurrent tactic of the directoris to allow scenes to run until they seem emaciated of meaning, only then to surprise us with new, often shocking information. It’s a tension-building trick that forces viewer concentration and contributes to the enveloping thematic concerns of voyeurism and manipulation.
Play — based upon real incidents that occurred in Gothenburg between 2006 and 2008 — is a sly, formally rigorous drama which, thanks to a provocative combination of studied ambiguity and tinderbox socio-political content, comes precision-tooled to stir debate. Some critics on the Swedish left have accused the film of racism, but the black boys, like their ostensible victims, are just kids, and kids can simply be cruel; Östlund doesn’t judge.
“Anybody dumb enough to show their phone to five black guys only has themselves to blame,” says one of the black boys to a white counterpart. The line is surely less an admission of innate criminality than a bitterly ironic reflection on how negative cultural stereotypes can be swallowed whole by the dominant and affluent in society.
Arrives with a controversial reputation.
Compelling and unpredictable.
Prepare to debate into the night.