Based on an actual racial incident in Gothenburg, Sweden in which a group of black teenagers carried out a series of thefts of other children’s personal belongings for a period of two years, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Play is about using psychological game playing rather than name-calling, threats, or overt violence to bully your target. It is a compelling study of how our lives are often run by stereotypes, racial or otherwise, and how the line between victim and victimizer can be a thin one. In this case, both the bullies and the victims are children, but the games people play could just as easily apply to adults, or even governments.
One of the most promising young filmmakers, whose style is reminiscent of Michael Haneke and Roy Andersson, Östlund’s camera is observational, simply recording what is taking place without comment. The film opens inside a shopping mall where we see a panoramic view that includes the shops, stairways, and two levels, highlighting even the smallest detail. We hear the sound of conversations but do not know where they are coming from. The camera then zooms in on two small white middle-class children walking through the mall lobby. They are approached from the left by five 12-14 year-old boys (all black and immigrants) who ask them for the correct time.
The game is established early, though the main victims of the film are three other children of well-to-do parents who appear later. Most likely repeated many, many times during their two-year crime spree, the game is played like this: One of the approaching black teens asks a younger child for the time. When the white child pulls out his cell phone to check the time, he is accused of stealing the phone that belongs to his alleged brother. He tells the boy that the phone has the same exact scratch on it as the one that was stolen from his brother, and asks to confirm it by showing it to his brother.
When the child refuses, a “good cop/bad cop” routine is played out in which one of the five pretends to be a friend of the harassed boy. The child inevitably denies that he stole the phone giving the “good cop” the job of reassuring him, saying, “Okay, I believe you, but we have to solve this, right?” He tells the boy not to worry, that his friends are not trying to rob or hurt them. At the same time, the “bad cops” are making aggressive demands in an intimidating manner. Östlund keeps the characters at a distance with mostly long static shots, yet we feel that we are there with the victims, acutely feeling their tension, frustration, and growing fear.
The scenario is then repeated, this time with three other children, two white (Sebastian and Alex and John who is of Asian origin). Compelled by fear and insecurity, the boys allow the bullies to control the game and only rarely ask for support from adults. When they do come in contact with them, the adults are reluctant to become involved, or, as shown later in the film, become involved inappropriately. The white boys are forced to follow their black tormentors around the city, on trams, and buses, then finally out into a remote, wooded area of Gothenburg where the game is played until its ultimate end point. Though the victims have several opportunities to escape, they do not take them, perhaps because the fear of black violence has been so firmly instilled in them that they feel that they have to be “nice” in order to save themselves.
Play has a light touch as well. In one scene, a group of feather-clad Indians do a war chant for donations in the middle of a busy street. In another amusing sequence, a cradle is placed between the second and third compartments on a moving train and remains there despite the urgent pleas of the conductor to move it for safety reasons. When he gets no response in Swedish, he repeats the warning in English. One of the key moments of the film is a sudden attack by older gang members against the young perpetrators in the back of a bus. Later, when one of the gang of thieves wants out, he is kicked and beaten inside the bus by the other four. Also, in a reversal of roles, the bullies blame the bullied. One says, “Anyone dumb enough to show his cell phone to five black guys deserves whatever he gets.”
Finally, an end game is set up by the perpetrators. A contest takes place in which both sides choose their fastest runners and whoever wins the race gets to take everyone’s valuables. Of course, the winner is predetermined and the white children lose all of their personal belongings, including their cell phones, a jacket, and an expensive clarinet belonging to John. A follow-up to Östlund’s highly praised 2008 film, Involuntary, Play is a complex and multilayered film that has a surprise twist near the end. Filled with sharp insights into human behavior, Östlund challenges us to shine a mirror on our own behavior and see whether or not we employ the same kind of psychological tricks ourselves to get what we want. Despite an ugly moment that does not add anything to the film, Play is a brilliant work of art that deserves to be seen.