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March 17, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | March 17, 2008 |

The premise of Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke’s brutally terrifying Funny Games sounds like something straight out of that lowest of horror genres, the torture porn: A pair of young men imprison a family in their own home and proceed to psychologically and physically torture them to the point of death or exhaustion. But in the midst of crafting one of the most taut and disturbing thrillers you will ever see, Haneke also takes frequent breaks to reinforce the fact that he knows he’s making a movie that’s being at that moment consumed by an audience. More than just dragging out the kind of horror tropes you’d expect (the dog that senses evil, etc.), Haneke also wants to communicate with the audience about their supposed complicity in the murder-as-entertainment that they’re watching unfold. Haneke wants it both ways, which ultimately keeps the film from being the kind of enlightenment or well-placed blow to the American view of violence as a product for consumption that Haneke wants it to be. Funny Games is stunningly made, amazingly acted, and a flawless execution of suspense. It’s just not quite as smart as it would have you believe.

George (Tim Roth) and Ann (Naomi Watts) are a happy, affluent couple with a son, Georgie (Devon Gearheart), and a summer home on a generic New England lake. Haneke’s used the names George and Ann for his protagonists before, and though the reasoning behind those specific names is known only to Haneke (and maybe not even then), the purpose behind their reuse is clear: George and Ann are real people only insofar as they resemble something like you and me. Their ultimate purpose is to serve as the kind of archetype that’s used to prop up the story, which allows Haneke to put them through the ringer and mine them for all the pain and torment he can inflict on them and the viewer while also remaining at a remove from the characters. As George and Ann pull up to their summer home, they stop in the street to call out a greeting to their neighbors and ask for help launching their boat later. Although they’re shouting across a huge lawn, Haneke keeps the camera at the car with George and Ann, allowing for only a blurry glimpse of their neighbors in the distance and the two young men clad in white standing next to them. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Seven) perfectly captures the immaculate detail of the couples’ casually rich lifestyles, from the SUVs to the acres of manicured lawn, and Haneke assembles those pieces in what will eventually become an indictment of American culture with pit stops in blatant pandering.

George and Ann unpack their groceries and go about settling in, and Haneke masterfully builds suspense by letting the action linger on seemingly meaningless objects and dragging the shots out far longer than has become customary in the editing-intensive landscape of modern American film. Haneke is the anti-Bay, the anti-Greengrass, the anti-everyone, and by lengthening the takes and cutting less, he creates a sense of palpable dread simply by letting the action build its own momentum. He is unmatched in mining the terror of the static image and the horror of the unbroken frame. Georgie and his father set up the boat while Ann talks on her cell phone in the kitchen and prepares dinner, and the scene is at once average for its lack of insight and compelling in the way Haneke refuses to get to the bloodshed a minute before he’s ready.

Soon enough, though, a young man in a white polo shirt and matching gloves shows up at Ann’s door: Peter (Brady Corbet) tells Ann he’s staying with their neighbors and needs some eggs for dinner. Peter is infinitely creepy, never doing much more than standing in Ann’s kitchen while she gets the eggs for him, but everything about his presence is deeply wrong. It’s not that he’s up to something (yet), it’s just that he doesn’t seem quite connected to reality; he’s pretty spacey, and he keeps switching between referring to the neighbors by their first and last names, and he’s just generally a weird and off-putting guy. He drops the eggs — intentionally, we know, though we don’t see it happen — and asks for more, politely insistent and almost accusatory. This is the heart of the terror: Not the way these two men attack the family, but the insidious way they worm themselves into George and Ann’s lives. Even in an era when everyone locks their door at night, George and Ann still want to be viewed as prototypically polite citizens of an enlightened America, and by the time Ann tries to get rid of the intruders, it’s too late. Peter is soon joined by Paul (Michael Pitt), the more charismatic leader of the two, and he and Peter just stand in Ann’s foyer and refuse to leave. As Ann’s patience reaches a breaking point, George and the boy return to the house, and the tensions escalate before George can sort things out. Paul takes one of George’s golf clubs from a bag near the door and breaks his knee with one clean swing, and like that, the situation plunges into an unpredictable and gutwrenching tour of homebound abduction. Paul and Peter move the wounded family into the living room and lay out the rules: They’re betting that Ann, George, and Georgie will be dead by morning, while they want the family to try and survive. Once the game is set, Paul leans back and asks, “So now what do you want to do?”

But here’s the thing: Haneke’s never quite sure how to answer that question. At key moments in the film, Paul breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. “Who are you betting on?” he asks once the basic set-up has been laid out. Later on, he states that the story can’t end yet because it hasn’t fulfilled the basic requirements of cinema. “You want a real ending with plausible plot developments, don’t you?” he asks, and the answer is: Yes? Peter and Paul — who also refer to each other as Tom and Jerry, or Beavis and Butt-head — proceed to sadistically torture the family they’ve found, but all of the violence is kept off-screen. Haneke expertly builds the suspense in each sequence, as in the one where Paul places a pillowcase over Georgie’s head and proceeds to hurt him until Ann strips to settle a bet he made with Peter about her physical fitness, but the hurting and the nudity all happen out of frame. The most devastating of all the violent scenes happens while Paul makes a sandwich in the kitchen, and all we hear are the screams, grunts, and protestations from the living room as Peter does whatever he does. This again brings up the inherent duplicity of Haneke’s work and raises the question of whether he’s attacking American viewers for being such avid consumers of violence, as seen in his aversion to actually showing any, or whether he’s just a bit hypocritical, since it would be possible to discuss the flaws in modern American culture without making a film that’s terrifying and unable to avoid catering to those very desires Haneke seems to find so repugnant. Faced with the choice of taking the high or very low road, Haneke replies: Sure.

Haneke’s problems get even tougher when you stop to consider that he’s made the film before, and I mean the very thing itself: Funny Games is Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his own Austrian film of the same name. The characters, the dialogue, the plot, even such seemingly inconsequential details as which shoulder is bared when Ann’s sweater slips loose (her left) — all this happened exactly the same way in the original, with exactly the same intended target and meaning. The performances in the new film are often stellar, particularly Watts, who seems to tragically excel at playing women suffering from deep emotional trauma, and Pitt, whose unflappable cool and amoral sensibility are a frightening and engaging combination. But the performances don’t seem to matter much because they don’t matter much to Haneke. He’s much more interested in crafting a jaw-dropping but cold film that heavy-handedly critiques American consumerist culture, as evidenced in the lengthy shot of the living room in the aftermath of a murder with blood dripping down the TV as a NASCAR race plays out, even as it can’t quite resist the urge to sell to it. But only the thickest viewer would find Haneke’s conclusions sophisticated. The real horror is that the Americans that Haneke hopes to educate with his film know exactly what they’re doing when they watch, say, Hostel; buying the ticket for the ride is half the thrill. What’s more, the only people who would see the film and agree with its arguments, how ever rudimentary, are the kind of people who would be predisposed to see a Haneke film in the first place. He’s preaching to the choir, but he can’t hear their refrain: We already know this. What next?

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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