Playground (2017)

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So I ate a giant edible before I sat down to watch Bartosz M. Kowalski’s “The Playground”, which is a 2017 arthouse film that retells the story around the murder of James Bulger. So it’s been a struggle to start trying to pen out my thoughts about it. I don’t like to gush, but this film was actually one of the best films I have seen in the past while, especially as far as an independent feature goes.

© Fot Jaros?aw Sosi?ski / Film IT

So the basic premise goes that it’s the final day of, oh, I want to say- grade 6 in Poland and a young girl (Gabrysia) with a crush decides to ask her crush if he wanted to “date”. The crush and his friend not only turn down the blushing schoolgirl looking for a date to the dance, but bully, harass, taunt, and film her bursting into tears before she flees and the two meaninglessly wander the town.

© Fot Jaros?aw Sosi?ski / Film IT

Previous to all this, we see the two young men in their home lives before, and while one looks after his disabled father, he also seems to frequently beat him, and some of this abuse is shown, and extremely unceremoniously as well. There’s no lead up, it just happens, and almost as soon as it happens, it’s over, leaving the viewer to wonder about what they had just seen. Sometimes, I think that some of the most violent and effective films, and pieces of film, are ones like this, where the violence is sudden, jarring, surprising, and knocks you out of that lull for a second. I think that people who watch a lot of films, or even television and become familiar with the tropes and traits, the archetypes, the effects, and even the sound design. Horror films can be noisy, and the lead up to a lot of murders in genre films can be highly noisy affairs and its this break with tradition in The Playground that makes the film so sinister, and so evil. Even when the background music begins to be sinister, it’s subtle.

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The two troubled boys wander to a local mall, loiter, shoplift, cause any sort of trouble they can, before seemingly randomly abducting a child. They take the child and lead him on a 4km walk through the town of Poland (really Liverpool) and are seen by 38 people but no one intervenes (this scene is wonderful by the way – the bleakness of it is overwhelming and sad, though the scene is told out of sync with the murder story). As the boys lead the child to the train tracks, they slap him, then beat him, then brutally murder him. The violence, like the abuse shown at the start is unceremonious – it happens so quickly that it is a real blink and you almost miss it type of situation. The murder is also shown from a good distance away, and not close up – there’s no gore, the brutality is quiet, yet no less unnerving. Make no bones about it, the murder is incredibly distressing in its quiet horror. I think it is this that made the film so effective, how quiet and ugly it is.

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The film ends shortly after.

In short for all of this, and what it’s worth – this film is a massive achievement and I feel privileged for being given the opportunity to watch it.  It is very artsy/arthouse, and certainly will not be effective viewing for everyone.  If you go into this one expecting gore and blood, you will be disappointed.  The film stands as a silent comment on the quiet brutality that is the world, and is in the minds of deranged children.

In 1993 James Venables, and Robert Thompson, two ten year old school boys really did abduct a child from a shopping centre in Liverpool.  That child was named James Bulger.  Venables and Thompson took Bulger on a walk around Liverpool being seen by 38 people.  They ended the walk near a railway where they pushed the child down, struck him in the face, threw paint into his eyes, beat him, stomped on him, struck him with bricks, and eventually dropped a 26 pound railway “fishplate” made of iron on him and fractured his skull.  A suspected sexual element also appeared in that the young boy allegedly had batteries inserted in his mouth an anus, and the foreskin of his penis forcibly retracted.  The extent of his injuries was so intense that the pathologist was unable to point to any one injury as the one that killed him.

The boys were sentenced to 15 years in prison and James Bulger’s mother spent most of her life battling the boys appeals.  The boys were released in 2001 on lifelong license and given new identities, but James Venables has reoffended several times.

James Venables, now 35, is back in prison for possession of child abuse images on his personal computer.  A recent news story indicates he has a price on his head in jail.

I’ve said it once, and I will say it again – sometimes real life is more horrifying than any horror.

The Playground on available VOD from Uncork’d Entertainment.


You can find Robin on twitter reading true crime and eating edibles.

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