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Funny Games   F

Warner Independent Pictures / Celluloid Dreams

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Cast: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart.

Review by Rob Vaux

I usually reserve the F grade for films that are either utterly incompetent or abjectly vile. Funny Games certainly isn't the former, and if it's the latter, it comes at least partially by design. It sets its sights on us, the filmgoing audience, and on our seeming enjoyment of horrific, sadistic violence. Couched as an upscale slasher film, it presents 100 minutes of brutal, carefully realized torture intended not only to make us squirm, but to take note of our squirming and ask why the hell we find it so enjoyable. I wish I could say it was a new argument, but it's been around as long as cinema itself, and others have delivered it without the condescending sneer that Funny Games has plastered all over its face.

The theory runs as such: every time we step into the movie theater, we enter into an unspoken contract with the filmmakers. We allow them to manipulate our emotions in exchange for some kind of gratification -- entertainment, excitement, spectacle, intellectual stimulation, or simply the belief that a nice guy can meet a sweet girl and they'll live happily ever after. The contract has rules, like any other: a certain plausibility in the scenario, for example, or the expectation that characters we like will live to see the final credits. Many believe that such rules are transgressive, especially in the case of violent movies about horrible people. The audience enjoys the visceral thrill of Tony Montana slaughtering his way to riches or Freddy Krueger carving up insomniacs, then participates in the sanctimonious joy of seeing those figures punished for their/our sins. It's a disturbing equation -- encouraging and relying upon the viewer's hypocrisy to work -- but still part of the rules which we've become so familiar with we no longer bother to notice.

The very title of Funny Games implicitly refers to those rules before flaunting them, mocking them, and utterly destroying them before our eyes. Through first-rate craftsmanship and merciless dedication to his stated purpose, director Michael Haneke sets out to punish anyone foolish enough to buy a ticket. The scenario remains extremely simple. A wealthy family drives up to their vacation home, only to be set upon by a pair of evil preppies who slowly torture them through various physical and psychological means. The end. Haneke deploys his bag of tricks to both implicate and torment the viewer throughout this process. Voyeuristic cameras stand just off center of the action, allowing us to sense what goes on but never get a clear look until after it ends. Conversely, the camera never pulls away from shots of George (Tim Roth), Ann (Naomi Watts), and their young son (Devon Gearhart) as they struggle desperately to escape their captors (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet). The effect is exquisite -- and exquisitely nasty -- aided by an absolutely fearless performance from Watts and solid turns from the remainder of the cast.

Haneke does similar movies such as Saw and Hostel one better by achieving it all with extremely little onscreen bloodshed: we see the horrifying aftermath and are left to fill in the blanks, which enhances rather than detracts from the unbearable atmosphere ratcheting ever tighter. Social commentary abounds as well -- the fenced-in fortress of the wealthy victims keeps them from escaping the very people it was intended to deter, while the villains' tools of torture are expensive toys found in the house itself such as golf clubs and hunting rifles. Detached from ethical implications, one can't help but admire Funny Games and the skill with which its auteur (who adapted it nearly shot for shot from his own German-language original) achieves his desired effect.

That effect, unfortunately, wallows in the same sanctimonious hypocrisy it works so hard to condemn. Haneke pulls us slowly across the razor blade in an effort to educate and enlighten us on our complicity in the horrors onscreen. He sets up deliberate contrivances to keep the killers in control -- including periodic destruction of the fourth wall as Pitt speaks directly to the audience -- and toys casually with our expectations before crushing them sadistically to bits. Why? To remind us of the power he holds in our unspoken contract. He's fucking with us, he wants us to know that he's fucking with us, and he's daring us to do something about it. And of course, we can do nothing unless we choose to walk out -- which I came closer to doing than any movie I can remember. Not only does the equation display unspeakable contempt for the viewer -- not only does it make assumptions about our temperament and reasons for being there that it has no right to make -- but the repeated finger-wagging and criticism of our very presence ignores the film's own complicity in revealing such horrors to us. The appalling sadism it eagerly employs in the name of, well, decrying sadism, becomes all the more infuriating when Funny Games repeatedly tells us it's for our own good.

Furthermore, we've heard its message before, countless times and with infinitely greater elegance and respect. You could go back to Vertigo 50 years ago, or even further into the silent era with Bunuel's eye slitting and (less deliberately) Murnau's The Last Laugh. But even modern movies have scraped the notion raw, as evinced most prominently by the Scream films and their ilk. (Wes Craven, I might add, also had the courage to examine his own complicity as a filmmaker in New Nightmare, decades after he and his contemporaries shattered the same taboos that Funny Games wields so self-righteously.)

Art-house fans for whom the film was presumably intended may not be hip to the idea that a genuine B-movie could do it better. They may marvel at Haneke's unwillingness to compromise and allow his efficient technique to seduce them into enduring such sick lecturing. But without the moral authority it presumes to claim, Funny Games becomes no less repugnant than the worst piece of torture porn, its "higher purpose" a fig leaf covering the two-faced glee with which it commits the exact same sins. American movies may be a sewer, Herr Haneke, but you're swimming in it with the rest of us: far deeper and with much more enjoyment than most. You should at least have the honesty to admit it.

Review published 03.13.2008.

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