Watching Play, one smells a rat. Though not just any rat: a gorgeous, luxuriant one, toned to perfection, with a sharp wit and an idea for every problem. Without your noticing, he nibbles at your brain, and when the film ends, he begins to claw and tear, gnawing hungrily. Suddenly, he turns back, frightened by your recognition, and begins to eat himself. Put more plainly: Ruben Östlund’s moral tale is the boldest formal experiment in the main slate at this year’s New York Film Festival, a trait matched in force only by the confusion of its politics.
The image of Play is a mobile proscenium space in a fluid, zoom-flat digital world, each shot making copious use of the zoom lens to work through carefully attenuated distances from the action in order to ensure that Östlund never has to cut to achieve his desired juxtapositions and relationships. The story is simple: A group of five black youths mentally harass three friends, two white and one Asian, at first seemingly motivated by nothing more than the gleeful meanness of teenage boys around the world, but eventually betraying more material aims. Östlund’s conception of the film is beautiful; his style, at once calm (physically) and nervous (optically), is impossible to separate from his content, which is similarly calm (the smooth mechanics of the narrative, as driven by the well orchestrated con) and nervous (in its view of the state of Swedish society). There are extended moments here (the opening shot, a sudden brawl on a train, a boy’s escape to the top of a tall tree) in which a single shot contains more of interest than a number of films in the festival manage in their entire runtime, and his eschewing of any traditional notion of shot/reverse-shot editing in favor of optical exploration within a continuous image allows him to craft a unique type of dialectic, one that emphasizes its situation within a larger relationship.
If one were to remove Play‘s central narrative from the slightly longer film that includes its prologue and epilogue, related events that assert the presence of an ongoing problem, it might be a major work on its own. Östlund’s preference for long shots allows him to chart the dynamics of the two groups as they go about their uneasy journey together, the blacks tending toward the circular, a spatial solidarity undoubtedly built on the soccer field, while the bourgeois others move in awkward triangulations, uncertain how to position themselves in opposition. As in Jack’s obsession with the larger house in The Tree of Life, or, indeed, as evidenced by the most common spots for looting during the London riots, Östlund shows a keen understanding for the way in which the mechanics of capitalism breed a kind of obsession with all things bigger and better that leads toward either autism or criminality.
Though this main narrative is far less problematic than Östlund’s maddening coda, one smells the rat even here, in the nagging sense that this apparently ripped-from-the-headlines story is a too convenient pretext for presenting a scenario in which members of an oppressed immigrant community can be shown as criminal without fear of repercussions for imagining such a scenario; in this way, Östlund’s film might reasonably be read to be (hypocritically) a product of the same political correctness that it eventually diagnoses as the country’s crippling problem. Still, this section presents an intriguing conflict between the black boys’ view of the scenario as an essentially class-based one (their interest in these three stems from a desire for their material goods: phones, wallets, jeans, a clarinet) and the whites and Asian’s view of it in racial terms; their fear of overstepping bounds of political correctness is so crippling that it prevents them from speaking the truth of their situation to any of the various authority figures they encounter throughout the film.
This conflict is rich enough, particularly when coupled with Östlund’s direction, to sustain the film, which makes it all the more baffling that he feels a need to include a coda in which two white fathers come across one of the black youths and forcefully take back a phone he had stolen from one of their sons, prompting a confrontation between the fathers and two women who accuse them of abusing poor, helpless immigrants. Certainly this view of these bleeding hearts as pathetically paternalistic isn’t far off, but this final reduction to a strict dichotomy where one is either a blinded bleeding heart or a model of post-racial justice implicitly argues for the efficacy of racial profiling in a way that works entirely in opposition to—and even retroactively reframes into reprehensible terms—the messy, productive attempt to embody the difficulty of synthesizing both worldviews into a single image that constitutes most of the film. Or perhaps this struggle between the openness of youth and the hardened thought of adulthood is Play‘s real conflict—a possibility exemplified by its rich title, which encapsulates both the games of youth and the theater of adults. Or is it the theater of youth and the games of adults?