Funny Games (2008)
Reviewed by Tristan Sinns
Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart
Directed by Michael Haneke
One of the more common, even rather expected, aspects of film is that of the resolution, that moment of truth wherein the accumulated stress peaks, explodes, and fades into warm and comforting closure. It is a satisfying moment when all of the suffering and conflict, be it emotional turbulence or outright physical violence, is shown to have a sort of purpose that we can smile and nod at. The resolution redeems us, purges our fears with a near parental smile, and lays them to rest so that we may feel it was all good for something after all. Give us this bread and we feel we know what the film is about; remove it and we're confused, tricked, perhaps even angered. Funny Games is a brutal exercise in filmic trickery, a vicious and elegant poniard of a film that stabs and penetrates the heart and leaves it shredded, bleeding, and starving for understanding.
A small family arrives to relax at their beautiful vacation home set somewhere in the rich countryside. All is idyllic; the sky a perfect blue, the countryside healthy and green, the landscape broken by still lakes born for an afternoon of lazy boating. Their vacation swiftly takes a malevolent turn when they are visited by two young men (Corbet and Pitt) who, despite their rather harmless demeanor, take over the household with a disturbingly practiced efficiency. George (Roth) is immediately wounded to the point of being rendered helpless, Ann (Watts) and son Georgie (Gearhart) intimidated and bound. They are trapped, caught, and helpless.
Thus begins the cruel core of the film; the family is subjected to a series of rather mean-spirited and torturous games initiated by the two giggling young men who seem to take a sincere and real interest in making the destruction of this small family as entertaining as they possibly can. This is hard stuff to watch, even in today's age, and may be more chilling than many might be able to stomach. It's not that the violence itself is somehow over the top, for it's not; it's rather that the cruelty is unleashed in such a context as to make it exceedingly frustrating by its denial of satisfaction or in any lasting relief of stress. These are games that the boys are playing, to be sure, but they are cheaters in their own games and, far worse, the film itself cheats right along with them. It is almost as if the film itself is a malevolent thing seeking to devour the small family trapped within it; the two giggling lads merely an extension of its ill intentions.
Denial is throughout the film; most of the violence occurs off camera, out of sight but the resulting suffering still heard to chilling effect, while we are shown mundane activities such as one of the men making a sandwich. We are denied witness to horrors, denied moments of gratuitous nudity that could distract us, denied key scenes of capture and conflict to only be shown their cold aftermath. The camera and its attentions intentionally work to keep us from anything gratuitous that might titillate on a more exploitative level. It knows we like the bad stuff, as we all do on some dark level, and that's why it doesn't give it to us except for a few brief moments done on its own malevolent terms.
The film carries along with it some rather heavy and intellectual messages concerning the relation between violence, the media, and the condoning of such violence by the passive viewer. The message of the film doesn't feel like it is necessarily opposed to violence in film, for never is it felt to be preachy or talking down from a soap box, but it is a powerful subtext that the violence is only there because we, the audience, are watching. The horrible things that befall this family occur only because the movie is being watched; stop watching it and all the suffering ceases to exist. It even calls into question the nature of reality, with one of the two men suggesting that fiction is, on some level, a form of true reality simply because it can be witnessed. The logical conclusion that follows is, if you want the reality shown within this film to stop, then you only have to turn it off or leave the room to make it undone.
Funny Games is a remake of a 1997 film of the same name, also written and directed by the very same director, Michael Haneke. This remake is exceedingly unusual in that it is a virtual copy, differing mainly in the actors performing and in the language spoken. The home was redesigned to be a structural duplicate to the original, and the dialogue simply translated and not rewritten. Haneke has said that he always intended the film to be an American story; and, having seen both films, I must admit it arguably better fits the culture. Overall this remake is brilliant; superbly acted, masterfully directed, and wholly, even painfully, memorable.
Funny Games deserves respect in the same way a bear trap of exquisite craftsmanship must be admired; for its cruel teeth, its crushing grip, and its inexorable ability to trap its prey and leave it crippled, bleating, and alone. Its genius isn't in its entertainment value, for few will truly find this to be fulfilling entertainment, but rather in its sharp and steely delivery of the director's message. It's a film to make you feel unsafe, as perhaps sometimes you should, in such a way that is beyond hope, or outright prayer. "I love you, God, with all my might. Keep me safe all through the night." Do you think the prayer will help them, Jerry? Jerry's just smiling sweetly and not answering right now. Go see this movie if you want to see something smart and mean.
4 1/2 out of 5
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