Plac zabaw (English title: Playground). 2017. Directed by Bartosz M. Kowalski. Screenplay by Kowalski & Stanislaw Warwas.
Starring Michalina Swistun, Nicolas Przygoda, Przemyslaw Balinski, Patryk Swiderski, Pawel Brandys, Anita Jancia, Pawel Karolak, & Malgorzata Olczyk.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following discussion will reveal major spoilers
One of the more disturbing films of the past few years without any need to be graphic, the Polish dramatic-thriller Playground from director-writer Bartosz M. Kowalski is a stunning and brutal look at the beginnings of adolescence; some of which are vastly different from the others. It’s the story of three different kids in Poland – a girl, Gabrysia, and two boys called Czarek and Szymek – whose lives collide in unintended ways. But it’s the two boys who’ve clearly wound up on the more dangerous, decidedly more violent path in the end.
It ought to be known, the film’s screenplay is quite obviously based on the tragic story of little James Bulger, a two-year-old British boy abducted, tortured, and murdered by a couple ten-year-old boys. Now, this doesn’t become totally apparent until later, as the plot’s heading to a close. However, when the knowledge sets in – for those who already know the story of Bulger in gruesome detail – it does so with the power of a hammer. As a hardened horror lover, I’m still capable of being surprised. Suffice to say, Playground‘s closing scene does the trick.
But it’s ultimately the lead-up to the finale that holds the power. Kowalski isn’t looking to absolve kids who do brutal, ugly things, neither is he seeking to condemn them. His film is a stark examination of the lives of kids when they’re left to their own devices. Like a visual metaphor for the age old question usually asked in fear, or maybe to instil some: it’s [insert time here], do you know where your children are?
Kowalski does well by introducing the viewer to the lives of the three main characters through a lens of class struggle, from varying perspectives. We see Gabrysia, and her home life looks middle class, perhaps even higher. She only has to take care of herself, though her home life seems, in some way, slightly odd. Then there’s Szymek, whose life consists of taking care of his disabled father, whom he beats after their morning routine. Finally, Czarek lives with his ageing mother, and he has to share a tiny room with his screeching infant brother; he doesn’t beat mom like Szymek does his dad, though he does casually joke about smacking her around. What’s clear, though, is that all three of these children have private lives; very private.
The painful process of burgeoning adolescence comes through realistically, as Kowalski employs a documentary-like style as director. There’s some fantastic imagery, too. Such as the parallel of Gabrysia often putting on/reapplying lipstick – the youthful ideal of beauty and love, typically more feminine (I said typically; I don’t buy into gender roles) – versus Szymek and Czarek often seen smoking – a symbol of death, and the bringing of death, historically, is typically seen as masculine. Just a small piece of symbolism that works within the film’s context.
These kids are left to their own, and what this illustrates is how children usually develop their sense of control and power. A lack of control at home can sometimes lead to a sad exertion of physical – or sometimes mental/social – power at school and elsewhere outside of the home. We see that Szymek even starts at home with the abuse of his disabled father, though the most shocking of his abuse is saved for someone else. Although Playground isn’t interested in making judgements, there’s a good deal to suggest the film falls farther towards nurture than nature. Not in that it discounts the role of nature. Rather, it feels like Kowalski’s suggesting nurture is of more concern simply for the fact it can do a lot of damage, it can be altered, whereas nature’s just uncontrollable and out of our hands. Society as a whole can change how it nurtures its children; it can’t change nature.
Too often, the powerless take out their frustrations on those with even less power. It’s a cyclic process of victimisation and re-victimisation, in which the powerless engage in a painful loop of abuse. Szymek and Czarek don’t hurt Gabrysia physically. They could’ve done so – the two boys were out in the woods with her, alone. And for a moment it feels like they will. They don’t hurt her physically, choosing instead to do so emotionally, because Gabrysia, as a member of the middle class, has more power than them. She might even have been able to fight them off if they tried attacking her. Therefore, the two boys find a little boy, years younger than them. On this poor child, they enact their revenge – one against their parents, against the adults of the world, against society and the unfairness of their socioeconomic status. This isn’t a REASON, it doesn’t excuse these boys for what they’ve done. That doesn’t mean these statements aren’t true, either.
The inclusion of class in the plots and the film’s story is significant, even if they’re only brief. Kowalski shows the viewer different upbringings in small town Poland, then how their effects manifest outside of the home in social situations beyond the family. The film is a contemporary view of class in this Polish town – one boy’s looking after his disabled father with no indication of how things got that way, where the kid’s mother is, and so on; the other boy has an older mother, an infant brother, and his older brother looks to be the sole breadwinner of the house, shelling out the money in increments. We see a large age gap between parents and children. In addition, there are suggestions of poverty, and perhaps even a lack of sex education, or maybe just a lack of access to birth control. And we must continually consider the religious faith in Poland, where Roman Catholicism remains fairly dominant, surely speaking to some of the family issues (particularly re: sex/birth). Crammed into these earlier moments, before the existential and visceral horror truly spirals out of control, are suggestions of exactly why things are how they are – what’s so disturbing is how Kowalski doesn’t dive any deeper, leaving us with only scraps to use in ascertaining motive for the finale’s shocking crime.
In the last minutes of Playground, the desire to avert one’s eyes is endless. Those details of the Bulger murder are filmed in a far, wide, static shot, and every sound is more traumatising than the last. Kowalski’s choice of shot here is more than just a pure stylistic choice, it fits in with the overall way he handles the story in its entirety: he doesn’t put us too close to the horror, just as he kept us at arm’s length while peeking into the lives of the three main child characters, and so there’s no way to get too specific.
In the end, is specificity really the point? Will being more graphic, more explicit, and more specific, in any shape, change our perspective? Will we suddenly understand what could possibly motivate two young boys to kill an even younger boy in cold blood, on a complete whim? No. We’ll never understand, at least not to a point where we’ll be able to reconcile the actions with the motivations. By keeping a distance from the subject matter, visually and thematically, Kowalski allows us to ingest a piece of fiction that might otherwise be far too harrowing for the average viewer. For this reason, above all else, Playground is an absolutely rattling piece of cinema that deserves to be seen, discussed, and most certainly remembered.