Ruben Ostlund’s Play is a pretty unsettling film. It’s a hustle narrative, but the combination of lengthy scenes, a very distanced camera, and pretty incredible performances from the young actors makes it so much more.
Ostlund shoots nearly the entire film in wide-shot. Here’s the opening to the film. We hear off-screen voices in this WS of a mall:
And eventually the two characters come into frame:
Ostlund zooms in, and then slowly pans across the mall to a group of five black kids. Despite the camera distance we can hear all of their lines clearly:
The camera pans back, finding the two white kids, before two of the black group joins them:
The dialogue this whole time lays out the narrative. The white kids talk about their purchases, the black kids talk about who will approach them. It’s the groundwork for intimidation.
Ostlund’s creeping camera and wide-shots are really effective. Throughout the entire film you rarely see any one character’s face clearly. Things don’t necessarily unfold in real time, but the duration doesn’t shy away from feeling overlong. It’s partially security camera-view, and partially mall bystander-view. The point of the technique is not only to make this less personal and more of a global/survey feel, but also to place us in the role of characters we actually see throughout the film: that of the person who witnesses but doesn’t intervene.
Many times the composition is straight-up obtuse. How different would this shot be if the camera was placed outside? That glass door keeps us separate but allows a “safe” view:
There’s an intercut narrative about a crib on a train. The conductor continuously gets on the loudspeaker asking (in various languages) the owner to remove it from an exit door. Nearly these entire sequences are shot from the same fixed camera angle:
Later in the film, in one of the more harrowing scenes, that same camera position is echoed:
The five boys now have a group of three other victims – those who make up the bulk of the plot – in tow. The above shot and scene reminds me a lot of Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown:
Similar immigrant themes, and that camera position intentionally placed so that it can be someone (the viewer’s?) POV – it all furthers the discomfort. We’re on the train during moments of uncomfortable violence and we don’t do anything about it either.
Aside from all of these detachment techniques, Ostlund’s really just got a great eye. Here’s a pretty shot where he really uses the middle-ground spacing well:
I love how those two kids in the center of the frame feel pretty uninhibited. The openness points to the idea that could run away and get out of the mugging they’re undergoing at any point…but they don’t. The contradiction here furthers Ostlund’s point: these kids could probably get out of the situation in any number of ways, but the group mentality and racial intimidation obscures what could be a potentially easy escape.
I think what impresses me most about Play is how resolutely Ostlund sticks to his strategy. He never wavers from the wide-shot, offscreen sound, and lengthy scenes. It’d be so easy to just cut to the occasional close-up for that heart-wrenching reaction shot, or to build suspense in a more traditional way. Ostlund never does. He’s got his plan, and he goes for it.