'Play' Immerses You in the Feeling of Vulnerability

No one imagines or even tries to see another perspective, here. Play -- as performances, as games, as the assumption of roles -- takes precedence over understanding.


Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Anas Abdirahman, Sebastian Blyckert, Yannick Diakité, Sebastian Hegmar, Abdiaziz Hilowle, Nana Manu, John Ortiz, Kevin Vaz
Rated: NR
Studio: Eye Film Instituut
Year: 2011
US date: 2013-04-10 (Disappearing Act: European Film Festival 2013)

"I bet it's a dildo or something pervy like that." Kevin (Kevin Vaz) is on a tram, leaning across the aisle to bother John (John Ortiz), who holds a small black case in his lap. Even as he resists, you know John will give in: behind him sits Kevin's tall and intimidating friend, Abdi (Abdiaziz Hilowle), and flanking Kevin and John are three other boys, friends of Kevin's. The shot remains still for long minutes, save for the increasingly distressing jostling of the tram itself, and the bars that form the vehicle's interior architecture -- yellow and grim metal, providing grips for riders and containing them within visually resonant boxes. John has no escape. And soon enough, he reveals what's in his case, a clarinet. One bully doesn't know what it is, but the others around him are gleeful, all pushed in toward John, his precious little space collapsing. Now perched on the bar in front of John's seat, Yannick (Yannick Diakité) grabs at the clarinet. "Play for us," he says.

John has no choice. Or, if he does, if he might appeal to one of the adults on the tram, or if he might refuse or get off the tram, he can't see it. And at this point in Play, you have trouble seeing it, too. Ruben Östlund's remarkable film, opening Disappearing Act: V, the European Film Festival in New York on 10 April, has by now, about halfway through, immersed you in the vulnerability felt by John and his two friends, Sebastian (Sebastian Blyckert) and Alex (Sebastian Hegmar), as they've been cajoled into accompanying Kevin and his friends on a journey far from the mall where they first met. At each step of this journey, you wish the victims -- two white kids and one Asian -- might extricate themselves from their predicament. But they haven't, and you know why: the boys accosting them are black.

This isn't the only reason. The bullies are larger in number, some are larger in size, and they're certainly larger in affect -- mostly older by a year or two, noisy, aggressive, more or less united. Inspired by real events in Sweden some years ago, the film traces the evolving relationships between the two groups and within each, beginning as Kevin and Abdi and their friends approach Sebastian in a Gothenburg mall and ask to see his phone. When they suggest the phone looks just like the one stolen from Abdi's brother, the victims agree to go along with them to show the phone to the never seen brother.

The filming of their first encounter sets up a pattern -- long shots and long takes, the camera panning from one group to the next, lingering on a pair of up-and-down escalators, observing the kids as they occupy opposite sides of a sporting goods shop -- that generates tension and apprehension, as you wait for what you expect to happen. It doesn't matter that what you expect doesn't quite happen, that the aggression takes such odd and insinuating forms, that its shifts from moment to moment, that the members of the groups turn on each other even more overtly than they do on their apparent adversaries. It does matter, in the scheme of this escalating tension, that the adults who happen by -- shoppers or clerks in the mall, passengers on the tram -- do their best not to see what's happening.

It does matter that when a pair of young white men do intervene, on the tram, in fact, they only insert more violence into the already roiling mix. Here again, the camera stays back, as the second set of bullies takes on the first, commanding them to get on their knees, pushing and menacing them. Your view is obstructed here, by the bullies who stand over their victims, by a young woman might be traveling with the would-be mediators and makes her way back and forth in the aisle, agitated and hardly helping to calm the scene. By the time the white men force the black kids off the bus, you may be feeling sorry for the kids scampering away, framed now as they recede from the tram's back window. When one of the men spots Sebastian cowered in the front of the tram, he offers a card with his name and number, suggesting the boy call him if he needs anything. Sebastian barely looks up at him.

The utter inability of anyone to do a right thing throughout the ordeal is shocking and also not. When adults do intervene at other moments (say, at film's end, when a white father takes it on himself to take back his son's stolen wallet), the rationale is instruction, though the example offered is more of the same, aggression and bullying. By the time Sebastian and his friends do make their way home after their long day out, it's turned dark, as you can see in the windows of another tram. Here the camera is close and still, framing the boy between windows and against a yellow panel, as he's accosted by an angry mostly off-screen conductor who insists the kids' parents will have to "pay" because the boys have not, having lost their wallets.

During this ordeal, the film cuts away intermittently to another scene on a vehicle, a glossy train headed toward Gothenburg, a train carrying adults. When a conductor discovers a cradle left in an aisle, blocking doors, he does his best, again and again, to convince the passenger who left it to claim it. He makes announcements, he moves the cradle, he speaks in Swedish and in English, he consults with a colleague -- all to no avail. Passengers ignore him, they laugh at him, they treat him as a nuisance, as hard as he tries to impose an order. While he understands a safety concern in blocked aisles and doors, no one else sees it.

And so he plays his role, much as his passengers play theirs, and as do the children, on another journey, in another class of experience. If the boys' fears and hostilities are vivid, and the adults' interests are muffled, the lack of empathy is much the same. And this is the problem, that no one imagines or even tries to see another perspective, that play -- as performances, as games, as the assumption of roles -- takes precedence over understanding.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.