By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 19, 2011 at 12:58PM
Festivals can be a great place to discover new, brilliant cinema, but often times the unknown films get drowned out by the heavily buzzed or the latest by a longstanding director. How many of us at the New York Film Festival saw "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "The Kid with a Bike" but, for whatever reason, happened to miss out on "The Loneliest Planet"? It's highly likely that this writer isn't alone. Still, one person generally can't see everything a festival has to offer, so flicks that don't have Palme d'Or helmers behind them or a truckload of auspicious praise for their "breakout performer" tend to get shafted. Still, it's a must to attend those we know nothing about. Besides the fact that they deserve it, they also have something those lauded ones don't: the ability to surprise; for the viewer to go in blind and be completely taken without having known a thing about its cast or the curriculum vitae of the filmmaker. With movie news at the click of a button and various media available all over the web, this is a rare occurrence. We've had a few very pleasant whammies this year, from the social/political critiquing "Policeman" to the sweet "Corpo Celeste," and we're happy to add Ruben Östlund's "Play" to that trust.
The Swedish filmmaker's earlier feature, "Involuntary," was an adequate effort involving people acting/not acting in highly questionable situations. Shot in mostly single, static takes either from a distance or close up (and always cutting heads and limbs out of the frame), the material was relatively substantial but not strong enough; as a whole it was admirable but mostly a practice round for something (hopefully) more powerful. Östlund delivers on this promise in the very first scene of “Play,” again working his magic in a lone shot to build the conflict that will drive the rest of the film.
We open on the hustle and bustle of winter shoppers at a mall. Eventually we listen in on our first batch of lead characters, a group of African immigrant teens who decide to swindle some native Swedish youngins. Using intimidation and an ingeniously well-acted plot (the film is based on a real incident), they muscle the children's mobile phones, claiming that one of their brothers had his swiped fairly recently. It had the same scratch marks, so how could it not be his?
This same game is played on three different children, a trio we stay with for the rest of the film. Since we already know what the villainous kids are capable of, their off-frame presence looming in every shot (we hear them giggling, throwing a ball against a store wall, etc.) induces serious anxiety as it anticipates an inevitable confrontation. The innocent are lured out of the mall, and after being refused help at a local coffee shop, the hectoring group forces them on a journey across town to meet one of their siblings (the "brother" in their stolen phone scam) to verify that the phone is indeed not his. Of course, this isn't the first time that these brats have pulled this con, and on the bus ride over, some meat-heads (lead by a sister of a previous victim) storm the transport and whale on them. All disperse but ultimately (and unfortunately) the two cliques end up back together and not a thing has changed -- when confronted directly about what will happen, the bullies explain that they're not going to rob the kids but are out to "solve a problem." Quite an unsettling thing to hear.
Even in "Involuntary," Östlund had a knack for assembling realistic verbal quarrels where no one appears to be the right one or wrong one. He successfully avoids a trap that lesser artists fall in, which only result in a finger-wagging answer that belittles both the movie and its patrons. No, he understands that the things he centers on in his work are complicated issues that cannot be so simple. He doesn't skirt the issue but confronts them -- including everyone's points, faults and nastiness to better illustrate the chaos of these social dilemmas. "Play" takes a look at a situation facing the native Swedes and the immigrant children, with the latter exploiting the others' guilt that they are more well-off in society. These African kids go so far as to say, "Anyone dumb enough to show his cell phone to five black guys deserves whatever he gets." This kind of topic could veer into very uncomfortable, self-victimizing territory (oh us poor privileged), but a scene towards the end (not to mention the director's sense of humor which seeps through fairly often) involving a parent berating one of the thieves shows just how complicated this matter has become. This also contrasts with the previously mentioned coffee house scene: when people do nothing it is frustrating, but when people do something it only seems to cause more grief despite the good intentions.
He really knows how to open a can of worms, that's for sure. There's also mysterious diversions from the narrative, such as a performance by Native American street musicians and an ongoing train sequence where a conductor struggles to find the owner of a cradle blocking a doorway. Taken on their own they’re amusing but they’re obviously metaphors to help further the director’s point – not impenetrable, but done with a sleight enough hand to make them captivating puzzle pieces as opposed to a ham-fisted emblem. Of course, this subtlety has much to do with his shooting style, as the director confidently lays out his film with one angle using minimal camera movement. Sometimes this is done with a wide lens that sucks in the environment, rendering the actors as big as toy figures, or in an angle where the scene is mostly obscured by a random object or person in the room. Though it admittedly feels a tad cold and detached, it also results in a very democratic viewing (rarely forcing us to look at something) and eschews bullshit sentimentality, which makes the accidental warm moments -- like the ruffians rooting for one kid to hit a hundred push ups, or enjoying another's flute playing – much more lasting. In a different world, these kids would be friends.
You tend to hear this a lot about festival movies (especially ones with any social or political critique), but this is one that’ll definitely have people talking afterwards. It’s a small film that unfortunately got buried this festival season thanks to the usual popularity contest, but we implore you: if “Play” comes near, seek it out. With its intelligent approach to the subject and artful structure, it’s a gem that’s not to be missed. [A]