(Plays at Cinequest 22:
SJ Rep, March 5, 2012 at 4:00 PM
March 10, 2012 at 2:00 PM)
By Richard von Busack
Perplexing but immaculately composed, Play is derived from the news story of a true-life crime wave in Sweden’s Gothenburg. A pack of African immigrant thugs preyed on the local teens for eventually 70 separate hold-ups.
In this fictionalized version, director Ruben Ostlund watches the social gaming between a pack of 5 rowdy black kids, all younger than about 15. They encounter 2 white boys at the mall. The larger gang tracks the smaller one through the shopping mall, and follows them out into the street. Ultimately, they persuade the boys to accompany them deep into the woods.
If there’s such a thing as strong-arm robbery, this is a soft-arm robbery. Ostlund observes this pursuit/persuasion from a distance of several yards. One dolly shot, one slow zoom and a few slight readjustments of angle are all Play really offers in the way of camera motion.
In one moment, Ostlund poses the camera on the front half of an articulated streetcar, so as the tram turns corners, we get a different angle of our view of the goings on in a rear car.
It’s not until the end of Play that the camera comes close to the faces of the children…both the successful thieves gorging on pizza bought with their loot, and the dejected victims. But then there are two final scenes: one that makes the chain of theft and retrieval seem something like a moebius strip.
Play is another one of those many movies where no one seems to call the police because Hitchcock said it was boring. Eventually, authorities turn up: transit cops who have enough spare time to levee big fines to the ripped off white kids…enough time to lay down long, shaming lectures about the wrongness of riding the streetcars without money.
Ostlund crosscuts to some business about an abandoned cradle that causes minor trouble by blocking the exits on the Malmo-Gothenberg express train. We learn what becomes of this abandoned piece of furniture. But the mind reels in horror from the possibility that this empty cradle is a symbol of social culpability: the adults refusing to care for their children and thus being responsible for delinquency, etc.
Such beyond-basic symbolism seems possible, in light of an only slightly related sequence about a group of pan-flute playing street buskers, who are dressed like Plains Indians.
Are they local color, symbols of the new pluralistic Sweden? Or are they’re there to underscore the idea that Europeans stole from indigenous people…so if the people of colonized nations steal from Europeans when they get here, we’re all even? We later see the Indians eating at McDonald's: again, one gets suspicious of a heavy hand.
Ostlund use to make skiing movies, and you can’t say he’s given up slippery slopes when you see Play.
Despite its formal purity, is Play racist? Ostlund has been denying this, even asking critics to point specifically to the racism. The penultimate scene is a white female student’s African dance for her school class—the dance is likely a reference to Rosie Perez’s number in the titles of Do The Right Thing. It’s something like Ostlund’s own confession, as Spike Lee’s film was, of having more questions than answers.
It’s almost a rule of cinema that whoever you see first in a film is who you’ll identify with; we see the white kids first. It is hard to comprehend the utter naiveté and defenselessness of these well-off white children, who can mislay the equivalent of $80 without having that carelessness ruin their day at the mall. The passivity we see everywhere is tricky (apparently, even the mall cops’ hands are tied in Sweden).
But Play’s subject is ultimately black on white crime and young boys afraid to resist: one whom apparently shits himself in panic during the long day of being hustled around by the gang.
Perhaps it isn’t racist per se, but tell me Play isn’t a comfort to the rising force of Swedish nativists. They’ll watch the immigrant kids tearing into their ill-gotten pizzas, feasting like wolves, taunting the mother of a victim via his stolen cell phone. They’ll see their worst fears realized. And Ostlund won’t be able to tell them they don’t have a point.