REVIEW: Funny Games (Haneke, 1997)
Over the last few decades the amount of screen violence that is tolerated and reveled in has increased. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. When the line is pushed at the extremes invariably the rest is dragged along with it. Violence that was once grotesque slides into the realm of the unexceptional and suddenly there’s a genre catering to those seeking the thrill of experiencing the new grotesque. Although it’s not really a new genre per say; it’s more that the genre is constituted by a new type of film. The Blob is replaced by Halloween is replaced by Nightmare on Elm Street is replaced by Hellraiser is replaced by Saw is replaced by Hostel, each ratcheting up the violence in the quest to satisfy that visceral impact of “gross!” that’s constantly being dulled by the previous generation of films.
Enter Funny Games.
A well-to-do family of three — father, mother, little boy — goes to their vacation house for a few weeks of sailing and golf. Upon their arrival two young gentlemen stop their house innocently enough, but when the wife grows perturbed by their unwillingness to leave and her husband intervenes, one of the boys, having admired a Callaway driver in the hallway, smashes the father’s kneecap with the golf club, thus setting into motion a horrific night during which the family is held hostage by these two sociopaths.
So far Funny Games probably sounds like your typical horror movie fare. But here’s the thing: Funny Games is a rousing intellectual treatise, a remarkably brutal provocation, and a viscerally exhilarating film.
Such a combination traits makes Funny Games a deft work of art and social criticism, which is exceedingly rare not in intention but in achievement. There are a lot of films out there that try to make A Point About Our Culture. Most of them suck. They’re either maudlin or overwrought or polemical or completely lacking in nuance — sometimes all four! Or they hit you over the head, again and again and again, bludgeoning to death their idea they think is profound until the idea is trite, thus undermining their entire operation in one fell swoop. A good example is Boondock Saints, a film so eager to make sure you get The Message that its closing credits is nothing but a constant recitation of said message by anonymous people from the world of the film. Barf.
Moving away from self righteous violence and destruction to just plain violence and destruction, there are better examples of what I’m talking about: 8mm and Thesis. The former is the terrible American answer to the later. You’ve probably seen 8mm on HBO. You’ll have to Netflix Thesis. If you’ve seen neither: Both deal with snuff films and our culture’s obsession with violence, the first with Nicholas Cage and the second at the hands of a young Alejandro Amenábar, so you can guess which is better. But even Thesis — which has a wonderfully disturbing final scene that’s marred by the coda, a sledge hammer that hits just a bit more softly than the closing credits sequence of Boondock Saints — can’t touch Funny Games. Not even with a 10 foot pole.
Funny Games is a Brechtian meditation on our complacency towards and complicity in violent films. The movie is a taut thriller, but amazingly enough none of the violence is ever shown on screen. In this regards it’s almost the antithesis to the torture films that are all the rage these days. Funny Games is manipulative towards the audience in the same way that the two killers are manipulative towards their victims, but that’s precisely the point. A number of times one of the killers looks into the camera to address the audience, even rewinding the film when one of the victims doesn’t act according to plan. It’s a moment when the audience thinks the family will get away — a moment of hope — that quickly turns into a moment where the audience is punished for being so willing to submit to the film. Such manipulation takes panache and the director, Michael Haneke, certainly has that in spades. But a debt is owed to the actors, each of whom is outstanding.
Coincidently, Michael Haneke has remade Funny Games for an American release (the original, from 1997, is in German). The new version comes out in March and has an impressive cast — Naomi Watts, Micheal Pitts, Tim Roth. I guess with a talented cast and the original director at the helm there’s reason to be optimistic that the film will be good. But why even remake it? The original is great. See the original.