If this is intended as a game, Judge Dennis Prince certainly isn't laughing.
"It's easier when things are polite."
German-born, Austrian-reared filmmaker Michael Haneke has been lauded for his severely introspective and audience challenging works such as Cache and The Piano Teacher. In 1997, though, he blindsided audiences with his unflinching and unapologetic tale of suburban terror, Funny Games, a grueling foray into senseless violence that left film festivalgoers unsettled and irate. Now taking a bow on the Hollywood circuit, Haneke has determined a near shot-for-shot remake of his Austrian thriller would serve American audiences what they say they want (though Haneke clearly intends this to be a dishing out of exactly what terror-mongering Yankee audiences truly deserve). Following a short theatrical stint, Funny Games is available on DVD, a "home version of the game," so to speak.
Are you sure you want to play?
Facts of the Case
Financially successful George (Tim Roth, Reservoir Games) has just brought his family to their lakeside vacation home for a bit of boating and relaxation. Ann (Naomi Watts, King Kong, 2005) is his attractive and adoring wife while young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart, Changeling) is the doe-faced pre-teen who has yet to explore assertion of his individuality. As the family settles in for a peaceful weekend two late-teenaged boys appear, Peter (Brady Corbett, Thunderbirds) and Paul (Michael Pitt, The Village), both dressed in tennis shorts, white polo shirts, and white cotton gloves. They want eggs for the neighbor they're staying with yet their politely-posed requests soon turn aggravatingly insistent to the point Ann asks George to send the lads on their way. When Paul swings at George with a golf club, effectively breaking the man's leg, the games have begun. With metered precision, Paul informs the now-captive family that they're in store for an evening of physical and mental challenges such as "Cat in the Bag" and "The Loving Wife," all culminating in the underlying wager put forth that the three would be dead by 9:00am the following morning. While the family struggles and pleads that the boys cease their unprovoked assault, the two dapper lads maintain their polished poise, unwavering in their determination to subject the family to an endless onslaught of "funny games."
"You must admit, you brought this on yourself."
Funny Games throws down the gauntlet before the opening titles have completed, assaulting the viewer with a harsh metal-grunge din that obliterates the peaceful classical music the family was listening to on their drive to their vacation home. Nearly immediately, then, writer/director Haneke informs all attending that this is going to be an unconventional excursion. Every element of the film has a purpose and every "rule" that it breaks along the way—those conventions of the predator/prey genre—is executed with calculated intention. As the foregoing quote asserts, though, the disregard for usual cathartic resolve is being blamed upon the filmgoer, deflected away from the filmmaker. Haneke doesn't merely wag a vindictive finger at the audience that craves extremely violent and perilous situations, he slaps the viewers across the face, repeatedly, to give them what they say they want. Without divulging too much about the picture, understand that there are no cheer-for-retribution moments here (save for one fleeting moment that Haneke flatly disallows in a remarkably frustrating flaunting of filmmaker's prerogative. Through all of this, Haneke appears angriest of all, a man who has somehow, somewhere, been severely wronged by the "bourgeois" class he so viciously unleashes upon here.
If you wonder whether Haneke simply wishes to carve out a reputation for extreme terror storytelling with this genuinely irreverent and unbridled tale, well, that seems doubtful. Rather, it's seems more likely he has something stuck deep inside his own craw and, try as he might to dislodge it, he can't—not even over the course of this disturbing diatribe and even not by the time the final frame flickers away. By film's end, his anger and angst, it would appear, is still inflamed and presumably implacable. It's as if the film's unnatural narrative is nothing more than an uncontrolled tantrum, one that kicks and screams (literally) in the faces of the social element represented by the unwary family depicted here. There are no explanations of what the family's transgressions might have been. Did George make his fortune by illicit means and that's why he's being punished? We don't know? Is there a linkage between George or Ann or even little Georgie and Peter and Paul that could explain their rage? We're never told. And are Peter and Paul (or whatever their real names are—we're never even offered that) really well do to young men or are they socially repressed and don their preppy outfits to further mock those they assault? Haneke won't say. It's truly a game here—Haneke's—and he makes up the rules as he goes to suit his own spoiled and self-indulgent whims. And as much as he castigates the viewers for their gall to continue watching the horrors that unfold, we realize that his tantrum is certainly intended to garner him the sort of insistent intention he so obnoxiously demands and needs.
Technically, Haneke is certainly capable of orchestrating this game. His camera setups and decisions to force us to witness the prolonged agony of George and Ann are clear indications that he knows how to deliver the precise experience he intended. On the acting side, Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are similarly precise in their depiction of the incredulously embattled and defeated couple. Young Devon Gearhart also delivers a highly believable performance as Georgie. Of course, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett control the proceedings and do so with unsettling ease and mocking charm. They effectively depict the two antagonists in a way that will have the viewer immediately hoping for their downfall and then proceed to further frustrate onlookers as they coolly and confidently assert there will be no such turnabout.
Now on DVD, Funny Games has very few "playing pieces" for us to utilize. The flipper disc contains an anamorphically enhanced widescreen (1.78:1) version of the film with a full frame cropping on the reverse side. The transfer is generally clean yet it does suffer from intrusive grain at times (especially the exterior nighttime scenes) and there are frequent moments of macroblocking, as the transfer seems to struggle with the stark white clothing of Peter and Paul. The audio, offered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, is just passable. As most of the story's violence occurs off screen, the surround channels are utilized to deliver gunshots, body blows, and groans. The dialog of the desperate George and Ann, however, is often difficult to discern, causing us to lean in closer to gain every word spoken ("Why would a viewer work so hard to soak up every bit of this dire story?" we imagine Haneke might challenge). The gamesmanship continues as this DVD arrives devoid of any extra features, further depriving viewers of any insight into Haneke's motivations, predispositions, or proclamations intended within the fetid fabric of the film. There are no featurettes, no interviews with the cast, and no commentary from the director. The disc contains the movie—in widescreen or full frame presentation—and that is all. Make of it what you will but here again, you, the viewer, are on your own to determine what it all means.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even if Haneke's confrontational approach is off-putting to you, it's nonetheless compelling since, in effect, he is forcing the audience to assess itself with every successive "game." It's conceivable that the most heinous assault, which takes place mid-way through the film and is followed by an arduously extended scene that offers us no reprieve from the aftermath, would be enough to cause any sensibly minded viewer to shut off the film. Haneke, however, knows the viewer will continue to watch and, for that, he flatly demands, "why?" Much like rubberneckers at a gruesome traffic accident, Haneke expects his audience will also be unable to turn away even though they know this is not "enriching" nor is it "entertainment." He is fascinated, then, by the disgust he apparently has for the audience and, thereby, we too become witness to our own depraved indulgence in terrifying and torturous images viewed voluntarily. To this end, the film will leave you wondering, over the course of its running time (and long after), why you sat through it all when you were fully empowered to stop its assault at any time. Through the coldly detached characters of Peter and Paul, Haneke faces his audience directly, hands on hips with a sneer of disappointment and even disbelief, demanding they provide good reason for enduring the entire 112 minutes of the film.
Why won't you simply turn it off?
It's a classic case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't." If you shy away from Funny Games, then you prove Haneke's point that moviegoers' fascination with screen horror has gone beyond the limit and audiences have been overwhelmed by its residual effects. If you do, however, make it through all 112 minutes, then Haneke is waiting to ambush you by asking how you could waste your time on such a useless and even damaging "entertainment." Either way, Funny Games has no rulebook and you've been a sick-minded fool to have accepted its challenge. Haven't you had enough?
In the end, this court can only declare a mistrial in the case of Funny Games due to a hung jury. It does not escape this court's sensibility that the delights the defendant to no end.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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