- Rated R
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All photos © Warner Independent
Reviewed by David Medsker
unny Games” is as polarizing a movie as you’re likely to find. Some will sing its praises, and others will hate it with the white-hot fire of a thousand suns. I can actually understand both sides of the argument, as I am split almost right down the middle on its merits. To the movie’s credit, it features far better performances than most of the movies that pollute its genre, the violence tastefully takes place off-screen, and it has a brazenness that the torture porn flicks could only dream of. On the other hand, one could easily “mistake” that brazenness for utter depravity, and find it all to be humiliating, nihilistic, and pointless. In the end, what you have is a well constructed art film with no soul.
The movie begins with a well-to-do family heading to their vacation house on a lake. While George (Tim Roth) and his son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) set up their sailboat, Anna (Naomi Watts) receives a visit from a twentysomething named Paul (Michael Pitt), whom she saw at their neighbor’s house when they pulled in. He asks for some eggs and she obliges, but she is immediately put off by his odd behavior. When George and his son make it back to the house, her suspicions are confirmed when Paul’s friend Peter (Brady Corbet) shows up and subdues George with one of his own golf clubs. The family now officially taken hostage, Peter and Paul make the family bet their lives against their captors’ over who will still be standing in 12 hours’ time. Let the games begin.
It is not just the characters that are playing games. Writer/director Michael Haneke, doing a shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 original (thirty-second exterior shots and all), employs a series of gimmicks to gussy up his little tale of terror, the most popular of which are the long takes – the effectiveness of these shots is actually a greater testament to the actors than it is to his direction – and Peter’s tendency to break the fourth wall and talk to us directly. (The other trick is of the what-the-hell variety, and nearly led me to throw my soda at the screen.) Peter talks to us because he apparently thinks the audience is on his side, that we enjoy seeing innocent people suffer at his hands. There’s Haneke’s Big Message, right there. You Americans and your violence, you can’t get enough of it when it comes on the evening news or the multiplexes. Well, what if it came into your home, huh? How would you feel then?
Here’s how I’d feel: fuck you, Michael Haneke. I get no kicks from seeing a family held hostage for no reason, and that is pretty much what you’re giving us. Case in point: Georgie’s life is put in the balance as a means of getting Naomi Watts naked. Threatening parents with the life of their child is the cheapest, lowest form of manipulation there is; to use it as a means to a T&A end is borderline pathetic. (Thankfully Haneke had the sense to not actually show Watts naked, but still.) It’s funny to see some foreigner use our crime statistics as an excuse to make a movie that waves the finger at us and our barbaric ways. You’re German, for God’s sake. Pot, meet kettle.
One wonders, then, what this movie would be like without Watts. The stripping scene is heartbreaking, because it is clear on the faces of both Anna and George that even if they survive their predicament, their lives as they know them are over. There are few actors working today that sell a movie as well as Watts, and she sells this one with everything she has. Everyone plays their parts well, really; it’s probably a waste of Roth’s talents to be here, but there is a yin-and-yang aspect to a name actor playing Watts’ husband, so chalk it up to that. It’s tempting to write off Corbet and Pitt for their formal but truculent behavior (the educated, civilized beast, blah blah blah), but they gave Haneke exactly what he wanted: two-faced American gangstas in white-boy clothing with no moral compass. And that is where he gets it all wrong. Haneke treats Anna, George and Georgie as if they deserve all this. They don’t.
“Funny Games” is competently made, but as a story, it’s a cheat, and a reprehensible one at that. I’ve never gotten in a fight in my life, but if I ever meet Haneke in person, I’m punching him in the face. Then we’ll see how he feels about violence in America.