In every game of Tetris, the endlessly addictive yet essentially unwinnable puzzle video game from Alexey Pajitnov, there exists a moment when chaos inevitably, entirely takes over. Incongruous pieces begin to fall faster than the player can contend. Soon, hastily-made mistakes literally begin piling up at the bottom of the screen until the only option available is to just give in to the intensifying, unstoppable disorder. Game over. Mercifully it all ends to the relief of the hurried gamer.
According to Slavko Zurovac (Svetozar Cvetkovic), the smarmy sociology professor at the center of Serbian-produced drama Offenders, society works in the same way. Introduce a sufficient enough element of chaos into an otherwise ordered and rule-abiding community and soon things will deteriorate further and further into lawlessness, indifference, and barbarity from there. Soon enough, it’s game over for real.
“Introduce a sufficient enough element of chaos…soon things will deteriorate…into lawlessness, indifference, and barbarity…”
Offenders follows three graduate students, Teodora (Marta Bjelica), Aleksandar (Radovan Vujovic), and Danijel (Mladen Sovilj), as they attempt to prove Zurovac’s “Tetris theory” by kicking off that entropic decline in an urban environment and then observing what follows. In the film’s opening scenes, each of them creates a stimulus that, according to Zurovac’s hypothesis, will precipitate a steady progression of antisocial behavior: Danijel spray-paints a swastika on an abandoned building, Aleksandar breaks a streetlamp that illuminates a secluded alleyway, Teodora leaves a festering pile of trash in an apartment complex’s rear stairwell. All three have set up surveillance cameras in their respective, adjacent “experiment sites”, and as they monitor the live video feeds, they await the arrival of a hypothetical figure they’ve affectionately christened “Statistislov” – someone who, spurred on by their acts of vandalism, will commit the first comparatively larger crime that will tip the scales toward chaos.
Strikingly shot in stark black-and-white in an austere-looking 4:3 aspect ratio, Offenders is a grim but often mesmerizing movie that develops a harrowing human story on top of its clinically academic foundations. As the three main characters become increasingly desperate to see their experiment yield results, writer Djordje Milosavljevic and director Dejan Zecevic chronicle in parallel how their lives teeter on the brink of a much more personal sort of chaos. Teodora sleeps with Zurovac in the hopes of landing a job at the university; Alexsandar, Teodora’s nominal boyfriend, cluelessly weathers their tumultuous romantic relationship while simultaneously dealing with his deadbeat gambling-addicted stepfather; Danijel becomes consumed with the experiment to a pathological degree and increasingly neglects his terminally ill, nearly comatose mother. All three driven and troubled and capable of hurting others, and – much like the fragile societal order, they’re anxiously waiting to see crumble – they all seem just a few small steps away from a catastrophic breakdown themselves.
“…the sense of foreboding and dramatic tension…never comes close to letting up.”
Offenders‘ narrative might revolve around entropy, but, in contrast, the filmmaking on display is assured and tightly controlled throughout. Zecevic’s directorial style nods to Stanley Kubrick in its methodical framing and unsparing depictions of emotional and physical brutality, not to mention the unusual, Full Metal Jacket–like deployment of the non-widescreen aspect ratio. The confinement and claustrophobia of that relatively closed-in frame is complemented by the filmmakers’ deliberate use of limited locations and a small cast of characters, all of which greatly adds to the cold, lonely, dread-filled atmosphere. Offenders can’t avoid some stretches of laggy pacing – a large part of the story, after all, revolves around characters staring at screens on which not much is happening – but the sense of foreboding and dramatic tension, even in the slower sequences, never comes close to letting up. There’s nothing here that’s analogous to those first few relaxed, confidence-building rounds of Tetris; the tenseness and desperation are ratcheted up essentially right from the start, and the collapse feels like it could come at any time.
Among Offenders‘ other successful elements is a trio of terrific central performances from some exceptionally well-cast young actors. Bjelica, Vujovic, and Sovilj all, in their own distinct ways, key in on their characters’ thinly disguised vulnerabilities – as well as their fatalistic recklessness – in both their individual scenes and, especially, in the intensely charged interactions that arise as the students’ professional and personal relationships turn ever more toxic. Cvetkovic, too, is convincing and charismatic as an academic who so revels in the distinguished image he’s cultivated (in the film’s opening scene, his students actually applaud after one of his lectures) that he feels wholly above the law and order he very eloquently pontificates upon. Zurovac might be the most familiar character archetype in the film, but Cvetkovic’s limited screen time is put to powerful use; it’s a canny portrayal of a detestable but insidiously clever personality that looms large over the entire film.
It is, in fact, Zurovac who figures in Offenders‘ final scene, which closes things out on a dark, cynical note that suits Zecevic and Milosavljevic’s bleakly spiraling narrative perfectly. A game of Tetris may end with an implicit invitation for the player to start over from scratch, but this story concludes with a harsh reminder of just how hopeless the game really is.
Offenders (2018) Directed by Dejan Zecevic. Written by Djordje Milosavljevic. Starring Marta Bjelica, Mladen Sovilj, Radovan Vujovic, Miodrag Dragicevic
8 out of 10