Written and Directed by: Michael Haneke
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Why don't you just kill us?"
"You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment."
"You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment."
The recent release of The Strangers has sparked a bit of interest in a relatively obscure sub-genre of horror: the home invasion film. Perhaps more than any other sub-genre, this one is more resonant with viewers due to the sheer reality of the situation. There are no demons, vampires, or undead zombies to contend with; instead, the monster here is humanity. Furthermore, this sub-genre is unique in the way that its victims are assaulted in the comfort of their own home for seemingly no rhyme or reason. Such a thought terrified me as a child (and still does to an extent) because the most sacred, safe place you can think about is violated. Funny Games is one of the latest entries in this sub-genre. A shot-for-shot remake of Hanekeís own Austrian film from about a decade ago, this film came and left theaters without much fanfare earlier this year. Its recent DVD release gave me the opportunity to finally check this out, and I have to say itís quite a gut-wrenching flick that pulls no punches.
Like many of these films, the plot is deceptively simple: a family of three is headed to their lake home for what they think will be a relaxing vacation. Shortly after arriving, they are visited by two seemingly normal young men wearing preppy clothes and polite smiles. One of the men visits under the pretense of asking Ann (Naomi Watts) for some eggs. It becomes clear that something isnít quite right about the two boys, however, as they refuse to leave when asked. Before long, their polite demeanor gives way to some disrespectful remarks that George (Tim Roth) doesnít take very well. This exchange ends with a broken leg for George, and, before long the family (including the young son, Georgie) find themselves at the mercy of the two young men, who offer a simple proposition: they want to play a game, and they bet that the family will be dead within the next twelve hours.
The filmís setup sounds more like a torture-based film, but I hesitate to call it this because the torture is primarily psychological. The boys subject the family to a series of games that have no possible positive outcome for them, and the intruders admit as much. In short, these guys are having fun by taunting their soon-to-be victims for no apparent reason. Indeed, these two characters are the most chilling aspect of the film, as they are obviously sociopathic and deranged to the point of treating the whole situation in a casual, matter-of-fact manner. The title of the film is completely appropriate because the events of this film are just that for these two characters: funny games.
Ultimately, itís the presence of these two characters and the casual nature of their violence that makes the film unsettling. Whereas The Strangers was set up as a moody and atmospheric stalk-fest, Funny Games is far less subtle, but itís just as unrelenting. Whereas the former film offers next to nothing in the way of information about the title characters, we get to spend some time with the guys in Funny Games. I hesitate to say that we really ever get to know much about them (and this seems to be one of the filmís points), but these characters truly carry the film. This script asks a lot of Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet because I can imagine that these are not easy characters to play. That said, both do a wonderful job of inhabiting their characters to the point of making them almost charismatic.
Furthermore, the violence thatís committed in the film goes hand-in-hand with these two characters. The best way to describe the violence is casualóthereís nothing overly stylized or pretentious about it. Itís simply laid out as a matter of simple procedure. In fact, the most violent and disturbing scene in the film plays out as one of the two killers prepares a sandwich. Once the violent deed is fully revealed on screen, it plays against the background of the most mundane thing I can imagine: a NASCAR race that drones on the nearby television. Strangely, this moment plays out like a punch in the gut while managing to be quite natural. Hanekeís use of long, uninterrupted takes during this sequence forces you to confront the violence without shoving it into your face in a gratuitous manner. This makes the film quite unsettling, and I think it speaks to the level of violence weíve become used to seeing.
In fact, this ultimately seems to be Hanekeís point with Funny Games. Weíre not supposed to be shocked at the level of violence being committed by these characters; instead, we should be appalled at how unaffected weíve become by violence in a media age. There are numerous references to this in the film: the two boys refer to themselves as Tom and Jerry and Beavis and Butthead (two sets of characters noted for their violence), the presence of the aforementioned television, and, finally, the propensity of the main intruder to break the fourth wall and actually communicate with the audience. While this latter bit sounds hokey and gimmicky, it actually works within the context of the film because it questions our motives as a viewer and extends the title of the film to apply to us, the audience. Indeed, one of the filmís greatest tricks is on the audience itself, as the killer manages to actually rewind the film to make it work out in his favor. This fourth-wall interaction with the audience also manages to give us a glimpse into the killers' motivation: to entertain their audience.
In an era where hardcore horror fans have become accustomed to identifying more with anti-heroic killers like Freddy, Jason, and their ilk, Funny Games offers a bit of a deviation by examining this phenomenon as it unfolds on the screen. This final bit of trickery on the viewer basically dangles what we want most (the triumph of the victim over her attacker), but cruelly takes it away. While this, too, sounds gimmicky, it puts us in the shoes of the victims in the film. There is no possible positive outcome because even the film itself doesnít play fair. In this respect, it would seem that the film has a lot to say about the traditional narrative structure of film, but this isnít nearly as effective as its commentary on violence and audience interaction. It helps that we have two great leads to help achieve this as well because without the great performances by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, the film would fall apart at the seems. Because all the parts come together so beautifully, the film is truly an effective punch in the gut. By the end of the film, youíre no longer as horrified by the home invasion aspect; instead, youíll find yourself shocked at the two invadersí casual disregard for human life.
Funny Games is a film that will stick with you. Iíve found myself thinking about it and contemplating it for days now, and I think that speaks to its effectiveness. Itís not a perfect film (there are some sequences that drag considerably), but it is a very fine film. Within the horror genre, itís certainly not typical. Some might even question its placement in this genre, but the level of violence and the questions it raises is horrifying at times. There arenít a ton of postmodern horror films out there outside of Scream and Wes Cravenís New Nightmare, but Funny Games fits in right alongside those. Furthermore, itís a bit more subtle than those films despite having some obviously self-referential moments. If youíre looking for a horror film with some brains that will challenge you, then Funny Games is for you. The DVD thatís out there doesnít feature any special features, but the presentation is adequate (I noticed some artifacts that are probably due to squeezing both the full-screen and widescreen versions on one disc). I think this one warrants more than one lookóin fact, I canít wait to go back and pick through this one again in the near future. As such, I think itís worth a purchase. Buy it!
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