The first shot of Ruben Östlund’s Play is a cross-section of three floors of a mall. Top left, window washers are going at the glass panes, while front and center are the usual tiers of useless retailers with generic names falsely suggesting deep brand histories. Now we’re slowly zooming past the escalators, whose glass partitions gleam painfully, and their consumers, gradually isolating two kids coming down the spiral staircase. More audio confusion about whose voices are coming from where, and now we’re solely on the first floor and there’s just two groups of teenagers on the floor, racially divided. The two white kids are oblivious: they’re trying to figure out where 500 kroner (about $75) disappeared to. The camera pans left to the other side of the fountain: the five black youths are playing “zig zag zug” (no idea) to figure out who’s “good cop” and “bad cop.” Now they move over with an obviously specious opening gambit: “let me see your phone,” one asks, before exclaiming his brother had just that phone with just the same scratches stolen last week. Can the kids wait while the brother is called? Cut to black and main titles.
By the time Play arrived at NYFF, I’d heard from a conservative that it was a trenchant condemnation of the irrational PC-ization of speech and from a committed Marxist that it was fascist. According to Östlund’s press conference, the point is neither: he’s trying to show how a group of black youths (in documented police files) played upon stereotypical images of black youths in Swedish society to rob their peer cohort. In other words, he’s depicting—without overt comment—a group of minorities utilizing stereotypes of minorities to intimidate others without actually falling into the real-life role of Thuggish Black Youth, nor is the film suggesting any such thing and it’s your fault if you think that.
I’m not sure if cinema’s yet capable of or will ever be sophisticated enough to register such a complicated balancing act. What I saw was a group of unbelievably obnoxious kids acting like noise-generating annoyances vs. a group of equally annoying wussy kids who can’t even figure out when they’re being set up for an obvious con; the moment when one of the black youths says the brother is in Odin’s Square, only for one of the white kids to ask didn’t we just pass there, only to have their tormentors change the name of their destination without even blinking—such a blatant act of not-even-trying intimidation in the wide-open spaces in front of a deserted housing project area—leaves you confounded. When one of the black youths mocks them for being stupid enough for being white and showing five black kids their phone, it’s impossible to tell what the intent is.
And then the movie left-turns in the last third; with the main drama of “play” (social staging of black vs. white/playground games/the black kids “playing” their roles) over, there’s a last act where parents get involved, trying to get their kids’ phones back, leading to auto-critiques from on-screen. “He’s a youth and an immigrant, that’s two strikes against him,” says a pregnant(!) woman defending (after-the-fact) two black youths (one of whom was one of the culprits) from the attacks of annoyed parents, who actually hit the offender. With every possible argument enfolded, the movie ends—with one more ambiguity, a white pre-pubescent girls’ “African dance” at a school talent show followed by one of the assaulted youths' unbelievably awful clarinet performance.
Now. Maybe, intent doesn’t matter. Maybe the presentation of police files on-screen, without comment, is enough; just like in United 93, in 20 years, this’ll play more interestingly and less unnervingly. As it stands, Play covers its rhetorical ass from every direction. This is fair: no less eloquent a film than Do The Right Thing is careful to apportion blame to everyone who escalates the situation, deliberately obfuscating potential charges of race-baiting either way. For all I know, Play is meant in the same spirit; it’s a remarkably well-shot film, one which depicts complicated dynamics in something like real time, one where the white kids get their Asian friend “John” to go “speak” for them (twice!) because they assume a fellow minority will absolve them; he understands precisely what they’re asking and why, even if they can’t bring themselves to say it.
But this movie bothers me, and maybe not in ways it’s supposed to. It’s a must-see and god knows we’re lacking cinematic racial discourse; as a country, we’ve outsourced all that to The Wire. Maybe this movie makes me nervous for the right reasons; maybe, on the other hand, Östlund’s not up to much more than “Hey, the kids these days!” At certain times—notably a memorably nasty defecation bit—he shows his Haneke-esque provocateur roots, even if punishing the audience isn’t really on his agenda. Over two hours, Play stays unpredictable and beautifully shot. Despite the rigidity of the generally fixed camera, the performances show no seams: they’re totally naturalistic, as graceless as the security camera footage the digital evokes. On the other hand, the film’s agenda has me flummoxed, which is perhaps the ultimate sign of its success. Maybe.