Funny Games (spoilers)

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Funny Games (spoilers)

THRILLER/HORROR:

United States/United Kingdom/France, 2008

U.S. Release Date:

2008-03-14

Running Length:

1:48

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Devon Gearhart, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet

Director:

Michael Haneke

Screenplay:

Michael Haneke

Cinematography:

Darius Khondji

U.S. Distributor:

Warner Independent

Subtitles:

none


Note: You have reached the spoiler review for Funny Games. Click here for the non-spoiler review.

We've seen the set-up before: a nice middle-class family held captive by a pair of psychopaths. This time, however, things aren't going to turn out as Hollywood has primed us to expect. In his remake of his own 1997 feature, writer/director Michael Haneke uses the viewer's expectations against him or her. He makes a bold statement about how the indoctrination of mainstream thrillers has made violence and terror acceptable for entertainment by crafting a motion picture that is anything but entertaining. Funny Games is openly, intentionally unpleasant and is not for anyone in search of light fare. This is tough movie that sticks the knife in, twists it, then leaves it there. It's thought-provoking material but I suspect the audience is small that won't be repulsed by what's on screen.

In re-making Funny Games, Haneke has elected to use his previous Austrian feature as a direct template. The 2008 version of the film is almost a shot-by-shot recreation with identical dialogue (translated to English). There are minor differences: Naomi Watts spends a fair amount of time in her underwear, Tim Roth makes his character less demonstrative, and the location has been transplanted to Long Island. In general, however, those who have seen the 1997 feature may find this one to be little more than a curiosity. Haneke has used this approach because he is aware of the subtitle phobia that afflicts most American movie-goers and he wanted that barrier to be removed. The film will still have a limited audience but, at least in theory, it could be shown beyond the art house circuit. Also, by adhering rigorously to the original screenplay, Haneke avoids the misstep taken by George Sluizer, who prostituted his movie when re-making The Vanishing for a North American audience.

The movie opens with a happy middle-class family - mother Anna (Naomi Watts), father George (Tim Roth), and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) - on their way to a summer vacation home. Upon their arrival, they do typical things families do to get ready for vacation, including getting the boat in the water. Enter Peter (Brady Corbet), a neighbor who stops by to borrow a few eggs. Even though Peter is polite and deferential, there's something creepy about his manner. He is soon joined by Paul (Michael Pitt), who is just as polite but with an even more unsettling manner. It doesn't take long before the violent side of the newcomers is revealed as they deal George a serious leg injury and take the family captive. Their motivations are unclear but they have nothing to do with robbery or material gain. They're playing a game and bet that by 9:00 the next morning, Anna, George, and Georgie will all be dead.

One of Haneke's most controversial moves it to exploit audience expectations not only indirectly through a story that refuses to follow Hollywood conventions, but by some "fourth wall" breaking. On several occasions, Paul makes asides directly to the audience and there is one bizarre sequence in which a "rewind" is employed. This allows Haneke to show both way a scene could evolve - the crowd-pleaser and the non-crowd pleaser. He then explicitly rejects one. This is a case when the director's motivations become a little too obvious. It isn't necessary to overtly manipulate an audience like this.

The bleak, nihilistic style is what makes Funny Games so difficult to endure. While certain key events occur off-screen, the movie is unafraid of long, uncomfortable takes. There's one maddening scene in which the background drone of a NASCAR telecast becomes as irritating as a splinter under a fingernail. This sense of discomfort is what Haneke is striving for. He doesn't want us to relax for a moment, which is why there's an abrupt transition during the open credits from the soothing strains of Handel to the discordant sounds of metal. This leads to tension without the usual respite or comedic relief. The movie is mentally exhausting because there is not momentary letdown or chance to take a long breath. Even during some of the quieter scenes, the sense of impending doom is thick in the air.

The performances are well-suited to the material. Tim Roth allows his character to fade gently into the background to permit Naomi Watts to take center stage. She's very good as the loving wife and mother who is suddenly thrust into the midst of a life-and-death struggle. Michael Pitt is in his element here and is unforgettably unpleasant as Paul. Pitt, who can seem wooden in more normal roles, comes alive when given material like this. Brady Corbet is okay as his sidekick, but it's always clear that Paul is the more dangerous one. In short, all the actors do solid jobs playing the roles assigned to them in the usual home invasion thriller.

Haneke's ultimate point is that violence is something to be feared and despised, not relished and applauded. Because we sympathize with the victims not the killers, there is no catharsis at the end. Anna does not grab the gun and wipe out her captors, as the "rewound" portion of the film suggests would happen in the Hollywood version of Funny Games. The movie provides numerous opportunities in which triumph might be possible but rigorously checks off each one. If Haneke is teasing his audience, it's because they know the drill of how things are supposed to go, but he's not playing along. The psychos use a shotgun on Georgie, shoot George, drown Anna, then prepare to do it all over again with another family. The Hollywood version of this movie (an analog might be Panic Room) would have the audience cheering when the bad guys are eliminated; Funny Games leaves viewers feeling like they have been sucker punched. And this is precisely what the director intends.

From a strictly cinematic standpoint, this is a valid motion picture that tells a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It pushes buttons, develops characters, and generates tension. Because it so defiantly turns its back on Hollywood formulas, it also has the capacity to surprise, which is a rarity. The finale is definitive. It may not be the one that viewers want or expect but it offers a clear and unambiguous resolution. As I indicated above, the only argument I have with Haneke's approach is when he chooses to address the audience directly. That is unnecessary and distracting. I don't mind dark endings so what Funny Games provides did not make me want to storm the projection booth. Many potential movie-goers will disagree with me strongly about this, and that's what makes Funny Games such a risky and audacious endeavor. In some corners, the reaction to this will be unveiled hatred. While I would stop short of calling Funny Games brilliant, I think it's forceful, unforgettable, and thought-provoking. In terms of the extremity of reaction it provokes, it reminds me of the equally disturbing Hard Candy. This isn't for everyone (and some viewers will feel ambushed), but those for whom it does work will find themselves challenged and stimulated. Funny Games is not entertainment but it is an experience.





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