Plac Zabaw | Poland | 2016 | Directed by Bartosz M. Kowalski
Logline: Following the behaviour and actions of three 12-year-olds on the last day of primary school; a girl, a boy she harbours a secret crush on, and the boy’s best friend.
Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun) fancies young Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda). Szymek and his best friend Czarek (Przemyslaw Balinski) are bored, restless, and ticking time bombs. Gabrysia isn’t conventionally pretty, but she plucks up the courage to manipulate the object of her affection, by blackmailing him into a clandestine meeting, with the threat of exposing apparent compromising photos. Szymek brings Czarek along for moral backup and to help enforce any assumed punishment that needs meting out.
In the movie’s opening montage we see a series of apparently innocuous locations. The movie’s narrative is broken up into a series of chapters, the first three named after the three central characters. Gabrysia applies lipstick in the bathroom, prettying herself. Her father interrupts her and she stares back at him. With the lipstick removed Gabrysia dons her school uniform and writes a secret note. She deliberately drinks scolding hot water and grimaces at the pain. While her mother drives her to school she texts her friend reminding her of a plan. She is a determined young girl.
Szymek deals with his invalid father, helping the wheelchair bound man do his morning ablutions and feeding him breakfast, then carefully styling his quiff, before, inexplicably, slapping his father violently around the head after he puts the poor man back into his bed. The boy then slips his school bag over his shoulders, gazes vacantly into the hallway mirror, and slips out of the public housing block, then lights a cigarette from his secret stash.
Czarek sits in his bedroom staring at his wailing infant brother, whom he shares the bedroom with. Finally he picks the upset baby up. He pleads with his mother for his own room. She refuses him. His older brother teases and threatens him when he asks to borrow money for a school requirement. He reacts to the rejections by shaving his head of his blond mop. HIs mother is indifferent. Later, on the way to school, having been to the butchers, he taunts a dog but placing the bagged meat just out of the dog’s reach and then videoing the scene.
It is obvious both Szymek and Czarek come from dysfunctional households. Both boys have broken morals, and as Playground unfolds towards its utterly devastating denouement their behaviour becomes more and more frighteningly sociopathic, ultimately descending into the pit of pure abject evil. The threat of violence that is quietly palpable at movie’s beginning increases and in the eventual confrontation between the two boys and the girl there is a distressing indication of sexual assault.
But the really horrific violence is yet to come, and nothing will prepare you for its impact, except the realisation during the scene at the shopping mall that the events unfolding echo the true life crime of the 1993 abduction, torture, and murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. It is this tenebrous shroud that will smother the viewer.
Filmed like a docudrama Playground has the unassuming naturalism of Elephant, and is punctuated at film’s end with the same kind of perspective that makes the rape scene in Irreversible so traumatising; a single long take, the action viewed from a distance, helplessly trapped from intervention. The crime is far more appalling to witness than if the director had chosen to film it with a sensationalist technique of a series of swiftly-edited closeups, cut to dramatic music, as one would normally see in aconventional horror movie. Ion doing so the scene resembles more of a death film, even a snuff film, but without the voyeuristic intent. It is so disturbing because of its distinct lack of spectacle.
While the ending reminded me of the cold, calculated cruelty of Funny Games, it also brought to mind the haunting end scene of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, those monsters, seemingly innocent, that smile at you on the bus seat opposite, and will stab you when your guard is down.
Playground is a hard, hard movie to recommend, but the picture it paints is a necessary evil, for it captures the despicable truth of how murderous intent is a psychological disease that can infiltrate the young and impressionable, and if you look, the signs are there. It is a very well made movie, with excellent performances from the three leads, a powerful, brooding score, and very subtle special effects that will leave you dumbstruck.
Those of a fragile sensibility, and especially parents, be warned, Playground will shock you, that’s guaranteed, it may even traumatise you. Hell, I’m a hardened True Believin’ horrorphile and I was rattled. It completes in that scathing, scarring way the very darkest portraits of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind can.
Playground screens Friday, September 15th, 10.30pm, at Factory Theatre, as part of the 11th Sydney Underground Film Festival.