Based on a real Swedish petty-crime wave, Play troubles the waters of any smugly held view, liberal or conservative, about how society should regard and handle its own rogue elements — a dilemma Östlund obviously thinks is vital in countries such as Sweden that are over-comfortable with their own homogenous reasonableness. (His characters cannot help moralizing to each other like scolding parents.) Still, his camera strategy remains fascinating and elusive, always partially obscuring distant action with foreground reality, and patiently letting incidents play out in breath-holding takes that never look away. It’s the rare contemporary film that’s as majestically and gruelingly rigorous in its form as in its thematic interrogations.
Films like Östlund’s that hyperanalyze social contradictions and don’t pretend to offer easy solutions are not common, which makes the comparatively conventional and intimate Force Majeure all the stranger — either an outlier in Östlund’s filmography, or a sign of the director abandoning his dazzling mysteriousness for a more populist approach. Let’s hope for the former; besides Roy Andersson, Östlund may be the only Swedish filmmaker worth following at the moment, and we need another Lasse Hallström like we need a hole in our heads.