Sweden France Denmark Finland (118 mi) 2011 d: Ruben Östlund
One of the more divisive films of the year, a Swedish examination of race within the comforts of the well-maintained Scandinavian middle class society, using a story pulled straight from the headlines, which some may view as manipulative or sensationalist, others as racist, while others find it deeply disturbing. Because these robbery incidents actually happened, the question remains why they are significant, where the director examines some of the underlying motives behind such a successful scam operation, where between 2006 and 2008 there were about 40 reported similar incidents in Gothenburg, Sweden where a small group of about five 12 – 14 year old black kids would ask to see another young kid’s cell phone and then claim it resembles the phone stolen by their brother a week ago, where they then go through a charade of calling the brother and meeting him somewhere to sort it all out. Using a psychologically complex series of head games intended to intimidate the kids into following them, they were actually successful in pulling off significant robberies without ever using a weapon or resorting to violence. Nonetheless it’s a frightening example of pack mentality, extremely creepy, and amazing how easy it is for a small group to command this degree of involuntary cooperation, where it’s a return to the Lord of the Flies mentality in terms of establishing who’s in control of the situation, as the group with numbers tend to stand in the face of their intended victims, cursing at them with rude profanity and making insulting accusatory remarks, mocking them, calling them names, expressing out of control rage which in the minds of the victims could easily lead to something worse.
There’s no question but that the blacks intentionally use to their advantage the white liberal guilt trip, at times pleading repeatedly, literally begging them to cooperate, while at other times they utilize the stereotypical views of blacks, that they are prone to violence, as the perception is that black neighborhoods are crime-infested, so the thinking is it’s to the advantage of the mostly white victims, who are typically well dressed, well mannered and polite, carrying cell phones, and usually showing signs of cash on them, to play along and chances are they won’t get hurt. All of these thoughts are tested throughout this film, almost all of them unpleasant, where it’s extremely difficult to watch for a number of reasons, among which include the racial angle, but also a defense mechanism not to be manipulated by the director. What’s fascinating is how easily the victims are manipulated, and when they’re targeted as a group, perhaps a couple kids, if one tries to leave, the other victim turns on them with a vengeance to stay behind, thinking it would only be worse for them if their friend runs away. There are opportunities to run away or to alert an adult, but these kids are literally scared shitless to make a wrong move and are somewhat programmed by the rules of their own more docile middle class society to obey. Like a cat toying with a mouse, these kids enjoy the shifting of power and playing with their victims, extending the experience to a lengthy afternoon, forcing them repeatedly into humiliating behavior until they develop helplessly defeatist attitudes about doing anything about it. Most likely these kids are too ashamed of themselves to even mention it to adults, as evidenced by a subsequent train ride home, and scared by the ease in which the larger group takes complete control, where they futilely feel at their mercy. It’s not about the money, as they could easily rob these kids at any time, where it’s easy to see that they enjoy watching their victims squirm. By the end, as we see the victors scarf down soft drinks and pizza, in accordance with the title, it’s really all about enjoying themselves at someone else’s expense.
While this is a fictionalized recreation of real events, initially set in a Stockholm shopping mall, implementing a straightforward, documentary style, static camera of long takes that simply observes human behavior mostly in real time without making any suggestive commentary, it should be stated that the performances of the black youths never appear staged and couldn’t be more naturalistic, constantly moving in and out of the frame as if they’re intimately familiar with the subject matter, offering sensational performances where it’s impossible to tell this isn’t real. There are references to Michael Haneke films, like the punishingly sadistic kidnapping scheme in FUNNY GAMES (1997), only that film plays upon the audience’s expectations, where there is a brief window where the audience perceives the victims can escape, where because of their horridly brutal treatment the audience is actually crying out for revenge, at which point the director pulls the plug and says not so fast, literally playing with the audience through shocking treatment, which is not the case here, as the camera is a quietly detached observer that simply shows what happens and allows the audience to decide for themselves what it means or if it’s at all relevant. There’s also a similar agonizing subway scene in CODE UNKNOWN (2000) where a passenger (Juliette Binoche) is tormented by an aggressive Arab youth who grows angrier when she ignores him, eventually spitting on her. In that film, the director weaves together a mosaic of seemingly disconnected incidents which are mere fragments of life experiences, each expressing a stunning amount of authenticity, which seen as a whole lends a commentary on the complex multiculturalism of the modern age. Östlund’s ambitions with this film might feel similar, but may be more personal, examining class perceptions through racial imagery, where he’s actually holding the mirror into the audience’s faces and asking if people recognize themselves. How much does racial stereotyping affect our own behavior as well as society at large, and to what ends will people bully others to get what they want? Most will not like what they see.