After his girlfriend is killed in a brutal attack, former boxer and paramedic Jan (Milan Ondrík) falls into profound despair. Exploring themes of guilt, masculinity and justice, boxing-inflect crime film from Slovakian director Peter Bebjak shows much promise, but fails to coalesce into a coherent vision.
After a promising first act, Shadowplay falls into the trap that a lot of gritty crime dramas do in using handheld, close up camera work and dingy lighting as a substitute for intimacy lacking elsewhere. It’s not a problem with the performances: Ondrík as the lead brings depth and pathos to a protagonist who on paper is pretty unlikeable, while Michal (Hynek Cermák) fills out the thankless best friend-mentor role admirably.
The procedural crime element of the script moves along well enough too, with Vladimír Javorský giving good beleaguered Euro cop as Detective Dvorák, especially with a second act wrinkle that adds a complication to his attempts to nail Eva’s (Dominika Zeleníková) killer. No, there’s something deeper at play that feels off, a cruelty to the film that never resolves into redemption or understanding. Robert (Jan Jankovský) is truly horrible as Eva’s killer, his face a contorted mask of malice and vicioucness. But that’s all he is: there’s no attempt at humanity behind that mask or any dimension beyond the horrid object of hatred that he represents for Jan.
Shadowplay’s women – the two there are to speak of – are by far the script’s most underwritten elements. Though the film starts out fairly strongly, alarm bells ring when it’s clear that not only is Eva’s sole function the old dying to motivate the male protagonist cliché, but she is also going to die in the most gratuitously violent way possible. Isn’t it enough that she is run over and left bleeding and quivering on the street? Does she really need to be abducted and then smashed to pieces inside a van on the motorway? Greta (Leona Sklenickova) provides a potential love interest and protégé for Michal, but disappears in and out of the script too often to make much of an impact.
Bebjak’s film is far from bad and its three-tiered narrative is often compelling, buoyed by fine performances. But its treatment of women and shallow exploration of its themes sadly bring down its initial promise. All this would be easier to forgive if the film had something meaningful to say about toxic masculinity and violence, but sadly in the end, Shadowplay just doesn’t go the distance.