An insightful and troubling film about race, ethics and manipulation, Ruben Östlund’s Play is based on an actual incident in Gothenburg, Sweden in which a group of black kids manipulated white and Asian teenagers into surrendering their valuables.
In Play, Yannick (Yannick Diakité) and his friends target a trio of younger, presumably wealthier kids, two of them from “traditional” Swedish backgrounds and one whose family emigrated from Asia. Yannick and his pals claim that one of the boys stole a friend’s phone. (It’s the kind of claim only a teenager would put any credence in.) Eventually, they lure their targets outside the city, where they construct an elaborate ruse to relieve them of their belongings.
Filmed entirely in long shot, Play is chilling in its ambiguity. The distance between the viewer and the action happening in the image invests the film with an ominous impenetrability, exacerbated by inchoate assumptions and suspicions about race. The atmosphere suggests violence (which does come eventually, though not in the way you’d expect), but the kids’ behaviour, taken on its own, does no such thing. In fact, there’s nothing to suggest that Yannick and his pals mean the other kids any harm. Their ostensible victims have numerous opportunities to run, but never take them. (Are they staying out of fear? Boredom? The desire to hang out with older kids?) Moreover, there’s the distinct possibility that Yannick and his friends have no intention of ripping them off, but on some level are effectively goaded into it by the trio’s fear and gullibility. The proceedings have the feel of a sociology experiment gone horribly awry.
One of Sweden’s most daring young filmmakers, Östlund is part of a group that has altered the face of Swedish cinema, a group characterized by extreme formal innovation, oblique storytelling and an interest in what binds individuals to modern society, given our increasingly fragmented existence. Play is the most audacious and disturbing film to come out of Sweden since A Hole in My Heart.