Funny Games (2008)
Film review by: Witney Seibold
The story of “Funny Games:” A mom (Naomi Watts), a dad (Tim Roth), and their eleven-year-old son (Devon Gearhart) have their summer home invaded by two Aryan youths in white (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet). The youths punish them for not being polite, psychologically torture them, physically torture them, and promise to kill them. They toy with the audience, occasionally addressing the camera. Do you think they’ll live? Well, do you? Let’s beat and stab and main and strip and browbeat and shoot them some more on the way to the ending.
When I saw the original German language “Funny Games” (1997), I did sense that writer/director Michael Haneke was trying to comment on the place of violence in films, and how if we cheer for it or are repelled by it, we should be punished for watching it at all. However, the stronger message I took from the original was that Evil exists in a larger context than we, in our everyday bourgeois lives, are prepared to deal with or contemplate. That when we’re faced with real, irredeemable evil, there is simply nothing to be done about it. “Funny Games” struck me as a more intimate and far less funny version of “A Clockwork Orange.”
With this duplicated-nearly-shot-by-shot English language remake, however (starring some pretty big American box office names), Haneke seems to be tipping his hand a bit. He is clearly commenting less on the nature of evil, and more on the place of violence in films. Specifically, American films. He is implicating the audience for wanting to see violence. If you enjoy it, you’re a horrible sadist, and he wins. If you’re shocked by it, you still have hope to be crushed, and he wins. Even if you resent him for implicating you, and not implicating himself, he still wins, because, well, you’re still WATCHING the violence he is showing to you.
I, for one, don’t resent Haneke, despite the game he’s obviously playing with his audience (and even the morally superior stance he’s oft-accused of taking). I think both versions of “Funny Games” work as solid horror films, and invoke taut fear, tension, and pain. I admire Haneke for playing the game, however petty it makes you feel or makes him look. I appreciate good cinematic games, even if we are the butt of the joke. Was I outraged? Perhaps a bit, but then perhaps films should outrage us occasionally. This is why I can often get behind Lars Von Trier (although Haneke is clearly more sophisticated than the comparatively sophomoric pranks of Von Trier). Haneke has done a much better job of showing us violence and psychological realism in other films – “Caché” springs to mind – but his “Funny Games” films still have their intended power.
Haneke also has the advantage of timing: with a war now on, and torture being practiced and condoned by the American government, why not play a game with American’s spiritual complicity in on-screen violence?
The pacing of the English language “Funny Games” is the only thing that puts it slightly behind its predecessor. Since the films are nearly identical, the presentation of the lines feels a little forced in English, when it feels more natural in German. Otherwise, the performances are still all top notch, the pain is just as palpable, the thrills are just as wrenching, and the thesis just as valid.
Just don’t go in expecting a good time.