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United States, 2008
Directed By: Michael Haneke
Written By: Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet
Running Time: 107 min. minutes
Rated R for terror, violence, and some language
Note: This is the first of a planned series of second-opinion reviews, where we’ll provide an alterative take on a film when we disagree radically with one another. To see Evan’s initial review, click here.
Funny Games is a movie you could love or hate. You could just as easily walk out of it as you could stay through the whole, horrible thing. You could be horrified by it, you could be angry about it, or you could love it—the one thing you can’t do is ignore it.
Michael Haneke’s latest love letter to nihilism is the story of a well-do-to family being held hostage in their vacation home by a couple of malicious prep kids with a golf club. It’s actually a remake of a film he made in German ten years ago—basically shot-for-shot. Remaking himself? Well, yeah. He’s not the first to do this—greats such as Ozu and Hitchcock set something of a precedent for it—but no one that I know of has done it recently. It’s really not hard to understand why he’s doing this, though, when you think about the latest trends in Hollywood: 1) torture porn, and 2) unnecessary remakes of foreign-language horror films. It was really just a matter of time before this one got remade, and you really can’t blame Haneke for wanting to do it himself. In the hands of anyone else, this would have quickly devolved into exploitative garbage. Add to that the fact that Americans are just too lazy to read subtitles, and this makes pretty good sense.
But is Funny Games really a horror film? It’s hard to say. It seems to me that everyone defines “horror” differently (What is the difference between “horror” and “thriller”? Where is the line dividing horror from science fiction and fantasy?), but this is certainly a film about horrific things happening—it just refuses to romanticize them the way Eli Roth would. The violence here is all ugly and realistic, and most of it happens off-screen. In a sense, this is a direct attack on Hollywood’s insatiable love of using violence to make money—it’s uncomfortable to watch because it makes us, the audience, acutely aware of our profound desire to see what’s going on. Why do we have such a strong desire to see grisly acts enacted on other human beings? Why do we continue to pay money for these experiences? Why are we so quick to say we care about others when we love to see violence enacted upon them—both physically and psychologically?
Funny Games isn’t an exploration of human nature so much as an illumination of it—a mirror held up to the evil in your soul. As the antagonists (who repeatedly break the fourth wall) are quick to point out to us, we want to see a “happy ending”—but what, exactly, would a happy ending comprise? We’ve already paid to see this family get tortured and killed; we’re already sitting in the theater and watching it take place. Why are we still lying to ourselves and saying that we care about these people? And what would their victory even mean, given that their own mortality would still hang over their heads?
Funny Games is relentless in its criticism of a culture filled with people who are all doomed to die but still constantly seek their own survival, all while enjoying the deaths of others—and whether those others are real or fictitious is irrelevant to Haneke. Call it a mash-up ofCape Fear, Natural Born Killers and A Clockwork Orange—but where those three were content to toy cruelly with their characters for your entertainment, Haneke is toying with his audience. The Funny Games of the title refer less to what’s going on in the film than they do what’s going on in the theater, where the viewers are forced to look themselves in the face and question what they really value. Is it film? Is it art? Is it compelling? Maybe. But can you afford to ignore what it’s saying? Nope.