Saturday, June 14, 2008

Funny Games

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart

Running Time: 112 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

No, I have not seen Michael Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film Funny Games, from which this shot-by-shot remake is based. It’s an important point to make because whenever a film is a remade or adapted the temptation is always to draw comparisons to the material from which it was derived. That I don’t have that cloud hanging over my head is a relief considering this version alone is tough enough to think about and analyze on its own terms. Going in all I knew was that this was one of those suburban American nightmare movies (my favorite genre of film) and I figured that if it was a quarter as good as its teaser poster suggested I was interested.

The obvious point of comparison, other than the original film, is Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated 1998 remake of Psycho, but one could reasonably argue Haneke’s idea of adapting his own film is actually worse in conceit. At least Van Sant was tackling material that was fresh…to him. But its clear Haneke isn’t doing this for himself, but rather to expose the film to an American audience for whom he claims it was originally intended. Intended to punish. To reprimand us for our enjoyment of “torture porn” films by rubbing our noses in it and mocking the very conventions we’ve come to expect from them. There’s no point to it all, or more accurately, the point of it all is precisely that there is no point.

When most movies are over I usually have a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t and might offer suggestions as to what could have been improved upon. Funny Games is a different story. It isn’t a film. It’s an experience, and a grueling, unpleasant one at that. Actually, it’s more of an ordeal. It forces the viewer to look at their reactions to it and at times implicates them in the action, although that description makes the movie sound much deeper than it is.

It isn’t as timely or thematically important as Haneke thinks (and at times is way too artsy and pretentious for its own good) but as an experiment that gets you thinking it’s perfect. Some of that thinking may consist of wondering how anyone could make this piece of trash. And Haneke’s response would be to ask what piece of trash would enjoy watching it, even though he thinks he knows the answer-- “YOU!” And I can actually picture him screaming that in a scolding, arrogant tone while waving his finger incessantly. But he gets away with it because the experiment is often terrifying, well-acted and cleverly directed.

He’s definitely not changing the face of how we view movies with this but he has offered up one of the more polarizing, ambitious efforts of late and one that’s sure to have everyone split right down the middle. In other words, the only thing I enjoy more than reviewing movies like this is sitting back and watching people’s reactions to them. Does that make me as bad as Haneke? Probably not, since I can’t claim I enjoyed watching it nor would I have a strong desire to see it again. No one could. As a film I still don’t know what to make of it, but as a cinematic case study it’s fascinating.

Right from the bright red opening title sequence introducing us to George Farber (Tim Roth), his wife Ann (Naomi Watts) and their 10-year-old son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) Haneke lets us know who’s in charge here. Interrupting the sedate classical music they have playing through the car stereo is the loud thrashing of heavy metal, as they head to their Long Island vacation home for the weekend. While there Ann gets some unexpected company from two polite young men in white polo shirts and gloves who refer to themselves as Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt). They also refer to themselves as “Beavis” and “Butt-Head” and “Tom” and “Jerry” at various points but that’s neither here nor there. It doesn’t matter who they are, but rather, what they’re going to do.

Peter wants to borrow some eggs and has an awkward (at times flat-out creepy) interaction with Ann before “accidentally” dropping them. There’s something really off about this kid and Haneke cleverly but subtly lets us know that Ann’s on to him right away. This brings in Paul, who’s even creepier and the uncomfortable situation escalates into unbearable suspense by the time they shatter George’s leg with a golf club. He wasn’t as clued in as Ann, but now he is. They take the family hostage and place a bet: That none of them will be alive at 9:00 tomorrow morning. The games begin. Both games. The game these sadists are playing with the Farber family and the one Haneke is playing with us. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two and often they overlap.

Well-spoken and polite the intruders seem almost offended that this family would question what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Truthfully, there is no why, as is so often the case in random acts of violence. George, as the man of the house reacts to the situation as best he can but he’s still wrong. Anything he does is wrong because these guys aren’t playing by any rules and neither is Haneke. The couple is smart and resourceful but that’s just not enough. The victims exist only to be mocked and laughed at by the perpetrators, one of which (Paul) is fully aware he’s in a film being put on for our “entertainment” and breaks the fourth wall to talk to us. There’s been a lot of hoopla over Haneke implementing this device but everyone has gotten worked up over nothing. Its inclusion doesn’t do damage to the film, nor does it really help it tremendously. It slides right in without distraction and is strategically placed to get the point across. More importantly, though, it isn’t overused. If I had to pick I’d say the controversial method helps.

Are we REALLY rooting for Ann, George and their son or do we just want them to stay around so we can see them suffer more? That’s the question Paul is asking us the audience. Haneke wants us to root for the victims so when we do he can quickly remind us these two psychopaths hold all the cards and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have certain expectations about what a “torture porn” movie like this is supposed to do and what should happen, but Haneke subverts them all. He’s more interested in how we’re viewing it. There’s a scene where Ann disrobes and Haneke refuses to show us anything. He instead wants us to feel guilty for thinking about seeing Naomi Watts topless in a situation like this and punish us for it. I’m not sure he succeeded there since the thought of Watts naked isn’t likely to have me paralyzed with guilt or running to confession anytime soon.

Haneke wants to have his cake and eat it too. It’s awful that we’re watching such filth…but it’s perfectly fine for him to film it? The movie’s centerpiece, an uninterrupted nearly 10-minute long shot of Watts in her underwear struggling to find the fortitude to survive, will have you wondering if Haneke is guilty of the voyeurism he’s trying to condemn. And he probably wants you to wonder. In his defense no matter how he approached this material he would have faced those accusations so it’s almost beside the point. He drags the shot on forever in a blatant attempt to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible, almost daring us to look away. I couldn’t. With all these long, visually meditative takes everything plays almost like a 70’s era film, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange being the obvious inspiration.

Haneke also accomplishes, maybe as a side effect of his actual goal, what today’s modern horror entries can’t in creating terror without actually showing anything. His goal is to deprive the viewer of exactly what they came to see and he goes out of his way to do it. When a horrible act of violence is committed it happens off-screen as we’re instead forced to watch a character prepare a sandwich in the kitchen.

The victims may be smart and resourceful, but they’re also ignorant and have their heads in the clouds, prisoners of their own false sense of security. They’re oblivious that any chance they have for survival is minimal in a game like this and they fight an uphill battle. George is portrayed as a wimp who, beyond being unable to defend his own family, can’t even bring himself to punch Paul. The most he can muster is an open hand slap.

More uneasiness comes into play with another never-ending scene involving a cell-phone. All possible methods of escape are not only avoided, they’re mocked cruelly, as if Haneke’s thumbing his nose at all those dumb horror movies where we know exactly what will happen next. There comes a point in the story where we expect the tide to turn in a certain direction because it does all the time in films of this genre. Instead, we’re reminded who’s really pulling the strings here with another bold cinematic device. It’s brazen arrogance on the part of Haneke but doing anything else would almost seem like a betrayal of the story. The outcome was predestined and the only thing we could have done to avoid it was to stop watching, but he knew we’d never do that. He may have inadvertently sent horror movie fans running and crying back into the welcoming arms of Eli Roth, who dishes out safe, comfortable mainstream torture porn compared to this.

I always thought it might be interesting to see A-List actors act in a torture porn film. I wondered what it would be like to maybe see Reese Witherspoon or Tom Hanks fighting for their lives in Saw V as they try to escape Jigsaw’s deadly traps. The closest we’re going to get to that is with Roth and Watts here and now I know why not too many do it: It’s an ordeal. I’m not sure why Naomi would agree to be put through the wringer like this but that she has a producing credit on the film indicates this was a project she was passionate about for whatever reason. Roth plays against type as a passive wimp, conceding the spotlight to his co-star who has the more emotionally draining role. And I worry if young Devon Gearhart will be traumatized for life after acting in this film.

While the film may fall way short of A Clockwork Orange one area where it comes close is in Michael Pitt’s brilliant, terrifying embodiment of Paul that would attract awards consideration is this material wasn’t so problematic and the film wasn’t dumped into limited release in March. Brady Corbet has the quieter, less showy role as the shy, socially inept Peter but we’re never sure how much of that is a put-on. Both actors skirt the line between preppy annoyance and cold-blooded sadism like skilled pros.

Right now anyone reading this knows something I don’t: What my star rating for this film is. Usually I have a good idea what it is before I type a review, but sometimes I don’t until it’s completed. This is one of those times. But whatever it is it can’t be interpreted as a “recommendation” or any kind of admission that I “enjoyed it.” This isn’t a film you can enjoy or recommend.

I’m convinced a zero star review of this film would read exactly the same as one that’s a four-stars. 2 people could take the same things out of this movie with one loving it and the other hating it and they’d both be completely right. It’s just that kind of film. Maybe I’m just happy these days when anything gets me to think or argue. In trying to make a serious statement about the world we live in and turn the camera on us, Haneke has unintentionally turned it on himself. As a deep examination of violence in the media Funny Games may be a joke, but as an experience, it’s impossible to shake.

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