Based on real events, we follow a trio of young teenagers who are pursued by a group of older, troublemaking youths who have taken to mugging innocent children in the streets for their mobile phones. Using a psychological role reversal technique whereby they make the victim the culprit, implying that they had stolen the phone in the first place from their brother, one member of the gang is intelligently deployed – in this case Kevin (Kevin Vaz) – to play mediator, pretending to be on the side of the prey. Sebastian (Sebastian Blyckert) is the one being accused, as both he and his two guiltless friends are taken on a distressing journey across town with the muggers, resulting in a trouble filled day for all involved.
Play is uncomfortably naturalistic, as a film that almost anybody will be able to resonate with in parts. We’ve all been kids and have felt intimidated and scared by other gangs of juveniles who you know are looking for trouble, and that feeling of fear and anxiety is dealt with masterfully. Östlund has evidently attempted to make a film that appears almost as a documentary, as the camerawork and cinematography is incredibly effective, with a series of voyeuristic long shots to further enhance the fly on the wall approach and add to the naturalistic elements.
Intriguingly, there are also several lingering shots where nothing happens at all, as we simply witness people strolling past, or merely riding the tube. Again this adds to the documentary approach, as it feels as though Östlund has simply planted a camera and let the rest just happen organically. He implements a creative technique where he begins the scene with a meditative shot of scenery, before the actual acting itself then proceeds to take place, as the characters pensively enter the frame. There are also some moments where the scene plays out from an obstructed view, be that through a train door window or from behind stained glass in a restaurant, adding to the notion this is like a hidden camera show.
The realism of this title makes it somewhat upsetting too, really playing on the innocence of those being bullied, as the casting director had a field day in choosing three of the most feeble and endearing youngsters he could find, dressed in corduroy trousers and walking boots that you know their parents had to persuade them to put on that morning, making it all the more impactful when the inevitable happens and they are targeted by the gang. Prior to being mugged, we are left with a foreboding feeling as we can sense they are victims a mile off, as watch on painfully as they are led in like lambs to the slaughter.
That said, the bullies themselves aren’t always painted out as being purely evil, as Östlund also portrays them fooling around and just being normal kids, as their naivety and vulnerability is explored too. Play is actually more of a comment on society rather than a vindication of these kids, as we also delve into the racial elements at play, given the five muggers are all of African descent. They have been written off by many given their lifestyle, and yet such neglecting has only pushed them further to the edge, which then means they live up to their already tainted reputation, and eat into the hands of their doubters. What is also interesting, is how we explore the anti-racism on show, and how white people feel almost inclined to treat these particular criminals with less contempt so as not to appear as being prejudice, when in this instance, they have every cause to vilify this ruthless gang.
Play ends on a poignant note and one that rounds the film up intelligently, providing clarity to what has come before as Östlund ties this story together well. With evident shades of Michael Haneke influencing his work, this is a picture that deserves to be seen, as one that revels in the sheer naturalism on show. However, and let’s face it, there’s realism in cinema, and there’s watching a kid take a crap in the woods. Too far Östlund, too far.