Simple and effective drama about bullying based on real life events
Based on a real life instance of bullying, Ruben Östlund’s 2011 drama exemplifies the cinematic formalism that Michael Haneke has made his trademark. What that means for audiences willing to subject themselves to Östlund’s overtly clinical style is extremely long, static takes which follow the action around the streets of Gothenburg with the same detached viewpoint a security camera might offer.
The opening scene, set in a shopping mall, sets out a basic premise; a gang of youths, all black, approach some white middle class kids and claim that one of them is using a stolen mobile phone. Through a series of diversions, the white kids are convinced to follow and unwillingly trust the perpetrators of the con as they are lured out into the countryside, while adults glimpsed in the background seem unaware of the gravity of the unfolding situation.
Shot with admirable clarity by Östlund’s usual cinematographer Marius Dybwad Brandrud, Play is interspersed with a recurring scene in which passengers on a commuter train discover and attempt to rid themselves of a child’s cot. This is considerably less gripping that the bullying storyline, but seems to point squarely to a collective lack of societal responsibility as being the nub of the problem as Östlund sees it. Complete with several bursts of unpleasant violence and an equally unpalatable scene of public defecation, Play isn’t much fun, but it does skewer the way in which modern selfishness creates social division. A few witty visual tropes, such as a skier heading down a tarmac road, or a group of Native Americans dancing in a city street, suggest that Östlund could probably muster a wider picture of human life. But Play’s effectiveness comes from its simplicity; aside from an ill-advised coda, it’s a tough watch on a tough subject, bringing home the reality of bullying with stark objectivity.
Limited release from Fri 12 Jul.