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STUDIO: Warner Independent Pictures
RUNNING TIME: 107 Minutes
- That would break the rules of the game, wouldn’t it?
The Strangers as envisioned by Jean-Luc Godard.
“Fuck you, alright? Murder by Numbers had a lot to say about the modern condition!”
Starring Michael Pitt, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Devon Gearhart, Brady Corbet
Directed by Michael “The Bavarian Bombshell” Haneke
The game is simple: our gentlemen hosts (Corbet and Pitt) find a family (Watts, Roth and Gearhart) and set up the rules. If the family lives through the night, they win, if they don’t, our hosts win. How we win isn’t made quite clear, actually.
Many critics spewed vitriol in the direction of Funny Games usually reserved for whatever the punching bag du jour is (be it an Affleck/J-Lo coupling or something a bit more deserving, like Uwe Boll, for instance) upon its release. These reviews condemned the film as some sort of attack on American ideals and viewing habits made by an outsider who has the unmitigated gall to suggest that people use their critical faculties and simply think about how this specific subset (home invasion) of a genre works towards manipulating the audience and their sympathies. A film that isn’t traditionally entertaining, but whose form and content are worthy of thoughtful analysis and deconstruction, right? Instead, the invective used (with such flowery phraseology such as “vile cinematic exercise”, “smug, gimmicky, and heartless”, “gimmicky, pretentious mess“, and my personal favorite, “Michael Haneke hates you”) was predominately weighted towards disgust and disregard for the most part*. This is especially infuriating in a case like this where the critics should be the ones standing up to defend the work in the face of accusations of this sort, or at least interact with the film in a way that isn’t totally dismissive or lazy. This is a film that deserves recognition and analysis, one of the few real treasures of 2008 so far.
By the third day of filming, Brady’s propensity for phallic prop humor has completely drained the life from the set.
There isn’t anything to differentiate this from Haneke’s original film other than the fact that it’s now finally being put into the cultural context that he always had hoped for it to. Admittedly, home invasion and the sadistic torture of innocent families seems much more the bag of American cinema than European, and the recent shifting of gears towards a genre labeled as torture porn has only served to make the film’s timing more relevant since the original release (although, if this is finished in ’02/’03, there’s a much better chance of it breaking out of the arthouse ghetto and reaching the intended audience). The performances are raw and remarkable (Watts and Roth are heartbreaking when they’re finally given center stage in the later portions of the film) and the craft is impeccable. Lost in the hand-wringing over the film’s core message is the fact that Haneke is one of the most unstoppable creators of tension in cinema, and he’s using his full bag of tricks here to lure the viewer in before the rug is pulled out from under them** with the metafiction and fourth wall breaks. But even with these rather consistent (but not overbearing) moments that point out the artifice and exploitation of audience sympathy and emotion in a narrative film, the movie never loses its dramatic hook, and these asides to the audience only operate as brief respites from what turns out to be a pretty punishing motion picture experience.
“I realize that I’ve been troublesome with this whole ‘forced captivity in your own home’ thing, so as a kind of peace offering I brought you Kenny Baker.”
The Corbet and Pitt characters are the most fascinating facet of the film as without them the fourth wall stays intact and the audience isn’t challenged as to how the movie operates. Pitt gets the wealth of the monologues delivered throughout the movie and he manages to play the self-aware despicable torturer with aplomb. He’s a hateful motherfucker throughout, and his feigned courtesy to the family as he assaults them helps to form a truly haunting performance. They are pretty clearly audience surrogates, and it goes beyond them being aware of being within a movie and thus being able to bend the rules of cinema to their own ends: In particular the fact that these characters are constantly leaving the frame to go get food and the fact that they flat-out evacuate the premises for a solid fifteen minutes and then return as if to say “So, what’d I miss?” Also worth mentioning is their familiarity with generic serial killer background stories that attempt to explain away the character’s psychoses with some simple parent-related trauma or something of the like. And while the fourth wall breaks and self-awareness strike some as disingenuous (leading their gaze as it were), the artifice being exemplified whenever this is done is the true meat of what Haneke is getting at with this movie, not pretentiousness or self-aggrandizement.
Why on Earth would an American feel like this film is specifically targeting them?
Perhaps the biggest disconnect between the film and the critical perception of it is in the idea that this movie somehow holds the audience in contempt for its viewing habits and is a didactic lecture on torture porn instead of an operable film. It should be said that if the film were simply directing your gaze and then chastising you for using the gaze, like some sort of cinematic Pavlovian training, it would collapse in upon itself like a dying star and the film-as-thesis would simply be untenable. However, the movie is using the tropes and conventions of the suspense thriller pretty explicitly throughout the film (with the only moments the film that don’t adhere to convention being the fourth wall breaks, which actually undercut the suspense and help take the pressure off the viewer at points where it could truly become unbearable). It’s impossible to read this film as a condemnation of a genre, when one considers how effectively Haneke is utilizing the suspense genre to his advantage. You can’t just trade one form of exploitation for another, he isn’t suggesting you throw out the baby with the bath water, he’s making the awareness of the tormentors the entire point of the picture and the one thing above all else that the audiences should take home with them. How one ultimately feels about this picture might well boil down to whether they interpret it as a lecture or as the beginnings of a discussion. Funny Games doesn’t purport to be a panacea towards on-screen violence and audience manipulation in cinema, all it’s doing is asking you to think about the ways in which cinema operates and exploits the viewer in its directing of their gaze, showing that the physical violence truly pales in comparison to the psychological torture of a game where the winners have already been declared by frame one. By no means entertaining, but essential and thought-provoking. This is one of the best movies of the year.
Joe was moments too late to prevent the Kool-Aid Man’s suicide. And for your edification, he did let out a darkly ironic “Oh no!”
The technical specs are extremely solid, which is good considering the austere visual palette created by Haneke in the picture. The cover art is a compelling image, but I don’t think it carries the intention and artistry of the film’s one sheet with its evocative use of Naomi Watts and a solitary tear. There are no special features to speak of, which is just as well (that wouldn’t much be in the spirit of the game, now would it?). However, there’s one of those terrible DVD pirating PSA’s, recontextualizing Casablanca of all things, and as a funny side note to myself, it’s a flipper containing both Widescreen and Full-screen versions, with the hope that anyone anywhere rented or bought this movie because of the cool cover image and the promise of some violence without those pesky black bars. If just one person is swayed by that, it’s entirely worth it.
8.5 out of 10
*As always, there are exceptions to the rule of course.
*Although it should be said that the absolutely fantastic opening credits sequence goes a long way towards setting up the dissonance between the narrative and audience in retrospect, but it works solely as a discomforting juxtaposition when first viewed.