Funny Games: A Critical Essay on a 1/2 Dimentional Film

Austrian filmmaker, Michael Haneke, sure thinks a lot of his “ideas”. He has come to the conclusion that people have not only become desensitized to violence, but that we crave it in our cinema. And that makes us jerks. Jerks who must be punished. By him.

The punishment comes in the form of Funny Games, a film deemed so important by the filmmaker, that he made it twice: First in 1997 in his native country and then again in 2008, shot for shot and in English, because he knows that many Americans would miss an Austrian film. Well, it turns out most Americans will miss the film in English. I am among the unhappy few.

It begins with Ann, George and George Jr. Farber, an uninteresting yuppie family, driving to their vacation home. They are immediately unlikeable but that's OK because torture is on the horizon. What you don't know is that it will be you, the audience, who is tortured.

The Farbers arrive at their home and proceed to settle in. Ann (Naomi Watts) sets about cooking dinner while the Georges (Tim Roth, lacking the deliciousness of his bad guy characters, and wide-eyed child Devon Gearhart) work on their boat. Of course they have a boat.

After an excruciatingly long period of watching the family “be real”, a young man dressed in white arrives at the door asking to borrow some eggs. (The white outfit is no doubt meant to invoke A Clockwork Orange, one of many superior films with a similar message.) He “accidentally” drops them and then asks for some more. It slowly dawns on Ann that she isn't in control of the situation and she begrudgingly complies in order to get him to leave. Eventually, he does, but of course later returns with his companion played by the once cherubic Michael Pitt. (Does anyone besides me remember him as the sweet, fawning Henry on Dawson's Creek?!) Soon, but not nearly soon enough, the would-be Droogs make it clear that they are there eff up some white suburban azz.

Here's where things get interesting. Or at least they would have in the hands of a thoughtful auteur. But Haneke would have none of this, how do you say, story and character. “You want torture?” he implicitly asks. “Ooh, yes please!” say my $9. “Well, here's your torture! It will all happen off camera under the ruse that the audience's brain naturally draws more horrific conclusions, but really it's because I am prudish and lack imagination, as proven by the fact that I made a film whose sole purpose is to reprimand people who like violent movies.”

Oh, Henry!

This isn't an interpretation of a subtle film either. He says as much in interviews, but moreover, has his characters say it. Directly to the audience. Michael Pitt's antagonistic Paul (or Jerry or Butthead as he sometimes refers to himself…GET IT??!!) continuously breaks the fourth wall, asking if we've had enough or who we will bet on as the victor. George asks Paul why they are doing this and Paul jokingly delivers a series of cliche excuses for his companion's motives including sexual and classicist frustration and a history of abuse. You see, they are just two evil sons of bitches getting off on hurting people. George replies that he “gets it”, as if to anticipate the audience's response to this transparent sermon. But Paul just laughs. “He gets it. That's awesome,” he cackles. It is the voice of Haneke himself condescending to the people who were foolish enough to buy a ticket. At the halfway mark, you definitely “get it”, but the movie is far from over. Haneke will continue to drive his point home for another hour. It isn't clever and it doesn't make me feel guilty for wanting to see a horror movie. It just makes me wish that I could break Haneke's knee with a golf club.

Haneck's torture of the audience doesn't stop with preachy speeches and the elimination of compelling characters and creative bloodshed. He also draws out every single action and shot to an agonizing length. The worst case of this occurs during the “eye of the storm” in which the boys leave Ann and George to their false sense of security. The audience, having seen movies before, knows that they will be back. But they don't come back until after, in a mostly still shot, George struggles to sit up despite a broken leg and Ann hobbles around the living room and kitchen in her underwear attempting to cut her bindings. Next she helps him (without any help from he with one unbroken leg) into the kitchen where they take turns blow drying a cell phone battery. I don't know how long this scene is. Maybe 20 minutes. It feels longer. But all of this non-action happens in real time. We are relieved when the boys finally come back to finish the job. Of course, that takes forever too.

Michael Haneke is wrong about his audience, anyway. Most of us don't go to violent movies because we are violent people. We enjoy them as a way to relieve aggression without actually hurting people. A Clockwork Orange, Natural Born Killers and The Devil's Rejects have messages about society but they work, in addition to being superior scripts, because there is something satisfying about watching engaging characters kill and/or die in unusual ways. I don't seek out real life violence. Hell, I'm a vegetarian. I know the difference between fiction and reality. But Haneke's smug polemic doesn't just fail because he is wrong, it also fails because he made a bad film. Twice. Perhaps he will now dedicate his life to remaking the film in every language. Perhaps too, he will eventually make a version that doesn't suck.

X-Posted from The Reel