Thursday, March 20, 2008

Funny Games

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Michael Haneke’s new film Funny Games is anything from funny. Instead, it is one of the most twisted, unbearable, torturous films that I have ever seen. There is nothing entertaining about this film, its concept is devious and its delivery is gruesome. So why then, for the life of me, can I not get it out of my head? I tend to let go of the wicked rather quickly, but Funny Games, with its devilish antics, is a modern work of art. It’s morbid yet subtle, disturbing yet intriguing haunting. But it is also, not for everyone.

A beautiful family (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and their 10-year-old child played by Devon Gearhart) drive in their beautiful car to their beautiful lakeside home to spend a beautiful week away. On the drive, they listen to beautiful operas, playing a harmless guessing game of what is being heard. Suddenly, without any hint or warning, heavy death metal blasts from the theatre speakers. There is screaming and shrieking as big, huge, monstrous words in red appear on the screen. Welcome to our opening credits. Welcome to hell.

The family hasn’t been at their home for an hour before a nice, overly polite young man (Brady Corbet) comes to the door, asking for eggs. Dressed in his tennis whites, including eerie white gloves, the conversation unfolds much like the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men. It doesn’t take long for us to know something could be, or is about to be, seriously wrong. Of course, creepy events unfold as the young man’s partner in crime shows up and they terrorize the family.

My generation has been raised on the Saw’s and Hostel’s and other torture-porn garbage to expect the worst. More carnage, more blood and guts and guns and knives. The beauty of Funny Games is that it throws all that right in our faces, almost literally. Haneke is recreating his own 1997 Austrian film of the same name in a shot-by-shot adaptation. He has said that the original film was a way to ask people why they watch the things they do. But now, 11 years later, that idea is much more prevalent. Haneke isn’t afraid to throw American-entertainment-snuff-violence in our faces. Why do we enjoy stuffing our faces full of popcorn while some teenaged girl runs for her life, then gets captured, raped, hung, and whatever else the filmmaker has in store for us? Why, as a society, do we watch a journalist get decapitated in a grainy video, or a man in an airport get tasered to death on

The point of Funny Games is to ask, or possibly ridicule, audiences who enjoy and put themselves through this kind of gratification. This is the same question last month’s Untraceable asked, just in a plain, forgettable way. Haneke has a different approach. In his film, most of the violence occurs off-screen. You hear a gun shot, or a person getting stabbed, or a man getting hit with a gold club, but you don’t see it. We are forced to watch painfully long shots in which actor’s bound with duct tape and rope, try to scramble free. And then, most mockingly, every so often the main assailant (a deeply affecting Michael Pitt) will look directly into the camera, asking the audience questions, teasing them for a response.

Watts is one of the best actresses around. She hinted at her talent in Mulholland Dr. proved it in 21 Grams and has solidified it recently with Eastern Promises. Here, she gives a bravado performance, which includes spending the majority of the picture in her underwear. She and Roth make the film convincing, they carry emotional strain with such believability that it is engrossingly marvelous.

This isn’t an easy film to appreciate. The young crowd going for a torture-horror movie, and the art house crowd going for something new, will both be revolted. I was initially appalled when the film ended. But after you let it marinate, and by keeping an open mind, you see what Haneke is trying to say, and although you may not agree with his delivery, it’s hard to keep it our of your head, for the right reasons. A