March 12, 2008

Funny Games

Mr. Orange, meet...well, Mr. White

Grade: B +
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, and Brady Corbet
MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

That the so-called “American remake” of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s 1997 film Funny Games – which Haneke directs and filmed in the U.S. – is not only a mere shot-for-shot reproduction of its predecessor but also stars two actors born in England (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) comes off like an elaborate swipe at the common practice of reconfiguring original works to make them more palatable for American ingestion.

However, there is little palatable about watching two young sociopaths hold a bourgeoisie family hostage inside their lakeside, upstate New York vacation home and torture them with sadistic glee. And that is just how Haneke intends it. Funny Games is a singularly disquieting experience, as cold and calculating in its execution as the two antagonists. It is also gripping from the moment white-clad/bred Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) first appear on the doorstep of Ann (Watts), George (Roth), and their young moppet Georgie (Devon Gearhart) asking to borrow eggs. After disabling George, the two tormentors engage in a prolonged spectacle of physical and psychological cruelty, all of its glazed with an irksome, spurious patina of courteousness.

The loathsome young men’s derivation is purposefully camouflaged: They refer to each other by alternating names (Tom and Jerry; Beavis and Butthead, etc.) and concoct false backstories, including sexual abuse at the hands of their parents and drug-usage, that sound well-rehearsed for some future jury. In truth, their erudition betrays an upper-middle-class background that makes them all the more alarming. They emanate from within the same carefully insulated redoubt Ann, George, and their well-heeled neighbors have erected for themselves, a micro-community isolated from populated areas and shielded behind iron gates, chain-linked fencing and elaborate surveillance systems.

Haneke turns these accoutrements of security on their head, transforming them into a kind of prison in which the barbarians are free to pillage at will, similar to the techno-terror seen in Haneke’s last film, Caché. Those girded gates become a cage, and so dependant are Ann and George – and we, posits Haneke – on the salve of technology that, in one excruciatingly extended sequence, they squander precious minutes of potential escape time trying to revive a dead cell phone to call 911 instead of promptly dispatching Ann to run for help.

At the same time, Haneke’s primary intent is crafting a Brechtian mind-game that defies, even mocks genre rules for the sake of some meta-function. All the brutal bloodshed – and in one scene, forced nudity – takes place off-camera, accompanied only by sound effects, their aftermath, and our imagination. The lone instance of visible violence – when Ann guns down one of the attackers – is literally rewound by Paul via remote control in order to alter the outcome, positioning the audience to cheer the one onscreen slaughter and then revile its erasure.

When Ann asks the intruders why they don’t just get it over with and kill her family, Peter reminds her that she “shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.” More significant, on several occasions Paul breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, at one point scoffing at whose side we are undoubtedly taking and later justifying his prolonged acts of agony for the sake of offering us “a real ending with plausible plot development.”

Haneke has referred to the film as a parody of the thriller genre – echoes of A Clockwork Orange, Hitchcock’s Rope, and countless other films abound – in keeping with the director’s stated desire to offer “polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator.” Haneke reduces the role the audience to that of semi-culpable voyeur then sticks his thump through the peephole. In the end, it becomes clear that we, not necessarily this fictional family, are being toyed with and tormented. At once both brilliant and nihilistic, the real paradox is that while Funny Games demands a second-viewing, you might not want to give it one.

Neil Morris

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