This entry was posted on April 18th, 2012

By John A. Riley

Slowly, over the course of a day, five black boys intimidate some younger, wealthier Swedish boys (two white, one of Chinese descent) and gradually strong-arm, high-pressure and browbeat their quarry into giving them all of their treasured consumer goods. This uncomfortable film unfolds largely in impassive long takes that keep their distance from the characters, as if regarding them as bacteria under a microscope. When the camera moves it does so reluctantly, laconically, laterally. Often it remains still in flat, tableau-like shots which the characters enter and leave like in a stage production. Formally speaking, this is a well-made and boldly constructed film that rarely strays from a narrow repertoire of austere techniques, suggesting the restraint and refinement of a European auteur working in the grand manner. The child performers display just the right amount of gangly, uncoordinated movements and indolent facial expressions to be authentic, and are a far cry from the try-anything histrionics of most aspiring child actors.

But then there’s the subject matter. The film is based on a real incident, and the filmmakers claim not only to have read reports and transcripts of the case, but to have interviewed participants and witnesses. Then there is the fact that the film is so coolly observant, so unwilling to “get involved” with what is happening on screen, that it is impossible to tell what “point” the filmmakers are making. But in its eagerness to present “the facts”, this film fails to offer any analysis, either to raise any real questions or to suggest any tentative answers.

The stance that the film takes, that it is merely offering some hard-to-take facts, obfuscates its exploitation of its young cast: at one point a terrified youngster drops his pants and defecates in a field. Captured in another of Östlund’s clinical long takes, the viewer can only assume that this scene was done “for real.” Further, the film’s stance seems designed to cause the knee-jerk reaction that these black kids are just bad apples, plain and simple: look at them! They are so shameless that they actually play the race card in order to swindle their prey.

In almost any place one might name, there will be gangs of bored, unscrupulous youths who torment fellow passengers on public transport or wreak havoc in public places like shopping malls. Unfathomable factors are in play, from individual moral decisions to social and ethnic divisions. But it’s the film’s focus on the calculated and unrepentant nature of the criminals, plus their willingness to use their own race as a tool to create both unease and sympathy, that will (whatever Östlund’s original intention) play into the hands of racists.

Near the end of the film, a robbed boy’s father confronts a couple of the black children and the scene soon turns ugly. A passer-by intervenes and asks why an adult is harassing a young immigrant boy. The father accuses her of reverse-racism. Viewed in the same week as Anders Breivik is making international headlines while on trial for his bloody assault on multiculturalism, this film makes for uncomfortable viewing indeed.  It has the same coolness of temperament and hysterical sentiment that Breivik exhibits in the trial’s televised footage. However, if Play encourages discussion of thorny issues, rather than stifling debate with bland “teach the world to sing” platitudes, then perhaps some of the discomfort this film causes will be worthwhile.

Director: Ruben Östlund
Producer: Erik Hemmendorff
Screenwriters: Erik Hemmendorff, Ruben Östlund
Cinematographer: Marius Dybwad Brandrud
Starring: Yannick Diakité, Abdiaziz Hilowle, Kevin Vaz
118 mins