Directed by Peter Bebjak and written by Vendula Bradácová, Shadowplay (Stinohra) is a Czech-Slovak crime thriller with a despairing tone and gut-wrenching vision. While the concept, a craving for revenge, has been done time and time again, the filmmakers deconstruct the varying layers of grief and guilt, especially when rage is at the foundation. The film follows a group of people who will soon be left to pick up the pieces of their fractured lives.
The film opens with close-ups of Jan (Milan Ondrík), Jan’s wife Eva (Dominika Moravkova), Detective Dvorak (Vladimir Javorsky), gym owner Michal (Hynek Cermák), and a young woman named Greta (Leona Sklenickova). The director wastes no time fostering the disquietude. Jan is gathering his stuff after he and Eva got in a fight while she’s jogging, trying to clear her head. From a fair distance, Eva observes a man savagely beating a gas station employee. The worker’s grating screams and pleas render her speechless and motionless. A point-of-view shot puts the viewer in Eva’s shoes, making them endure the dread and peril looming over the character as she struggles to call for help and avoid the perpetrator’s gaze. Finally, she calls Jan, who refuses to answer.
This decision is a catalyst for what he experiences next because Eva dies. Jan surrenders to despair and shame, turning to alcohol and boxing to mitigate the pain. However, the self-blame and withering ire remain. Detective Dvorak is sure he has the man responsible for Eva’s death in custody: Robert (Jan Jankovsky), a known drug dealer. But bureaucratic antics complicate the road to justice, leading Jan and Dvorak to believe that justice is not always swift or righteous.
The well-worn concept of revenge often catapults the protagonist down a path of violence they can’t come back from. Sometimes it’s taken to extremes (In Order of Disappearance or John Wick). Other times acts of revenge are quieter and more grounded in execution. The latter happens to be true for Shadowplay. Jan’s penchant for revenge and whether he acts on it is handled subduedly and fairly realistically with sporadic bouts of aggression.
“…Dvorak is sure he has the man responsible for Eva’s death in custody…”
Jan may be at the center, but even the side characters serve a similar purpose harking back to guilt. Dvorak is trying to come to terms with the immoral practices of law enforcement and his complicity in it. Greta has the compulsion to fall in and out of love easily, and Robert must confront his wrongdoings. Bradácová’s insightful script pays close attention to the gradual effects of guilt that emerge and strengthen with time.
Since Jan blames himself for Eva’s death, Ondrík must allow viewers to see and really feel his internal pain and unbridled wrath blossoming within. With revealing eyes and grimaces, the actor guides viewers on an emotional journey that is less concerned about encountering the perpetrator and more about confronting the self-perceived failings of one’s actions. In addition to Ondrík, the rest of the cast of Shadowplay give considerable performances. Jankovsky plays up the menace of the perpetrator with an air of pomposity, whereas Javorsky’s physique grows increasingly weary as his character wrestles with the stress of the job.
The film is nicely encased by grey hues, a rousing piano score, and an industrial setting. Primarily using the shaky camera technique, mainly to enhance the intensity of the close-ups and the immersion of the point-of-view shots, the film’s usage of shots is well-considered and aesthetically intriguing. However, sometimes the handheld effect wears off, and the tension never truly reaches the heights of the incredibly gripping first act. Still, the actors give well-rounded performances that push the character-focused story forward.
Shadowplay looks at the inexorable consequences brought forth by our actions and beliefs. The final emotional tactic worked for me, but I know it won’t for everyone. Still, Bebjak’s extremely somber and emotionally nuanced tale of revenge is worth a watch.
"…extremely somber and emotionally nuanced..."