Sunday, March 16, 2008

REVIEW: Funny Games (2007)

WARNING: Contains SPOILERS for the plot of a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake of a movie over 10 years old.

In what are now both versions of "Funny Games," Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes sport of brutally tormenting his audience. As a two-time member of this audience, allow me to repay him in kind:

Mr. Haneke, your movie is a tremendous stylistic achievement. The use of largely natural-seeming lighting and wide, geographically-detailed framing achieves a remarkable sense of place despite the limited number of actual locations and helps add to the unsettling sense of disrupted-familiarity. The employment of long, static takes (one of your visual trademarks, it has been observed) displays a profound understanding not just of classical filmmaking technique but of it's proper application in the present world cinema: In the age of quick-cutting and airborne cinematography, audiences have become accustomed to accepting the static longshot as a precursor of hidden-in-plain sight terrors, so to use them consistently naturally creates a consistent tension. And note how you utilize carefully-composed placement of actors within the frame in order to further manipulate tension - rarely do your protagonists occupy the dead-center of the screen; instead moving off to the side or relegated to the corners so as to leave 'dead space' which the filmgoer's brain is conditioned to expect "filled" at any moment. I have no doubt that generations of film geeks, particularly those of the horror persuasion, will come to adore your work here as a formal exercise - pouring over it and dissecting it shot-for-shot - for years to come.

You may be wondering why, exactly, I'd offer up an immensely positive critique of the film with the intent to torment. Well, it's a matter of details. My appreciation of the film, expressed with nary a whiff of cynicism or sarcasm above, is as a formal exercise in the technique of horror filmmaking - and that is, as evidenced by the film itself in both of it's versions, the last thing Haneke seems to want it to be appreciated as: "Funny Games," in both of it's incarnations, is by design a moralistic, heavy-handed assault on movies that engage in the stylistic exercise of turning violence into cathartic entertainment and, more-directly, the people who go to see them. Imagine Takeshi Miike directing from a screenplay by Michael Medved and you're halfway there.

The original 1997 film is a hair over ten years old now, though I didn't see it until a year or two afterwards. This new remake differs only in cast, language and a handful of minor details - for all intents of purpose it's the same movie. I only saw the original once and found it to be quite visceral, though I now wish that I had done so once more so to better gauge whether my overall disaffected reaction to seeing this version was the result of some intangible flaw (unlikely, as I described above Haneke's technical skills are impeccable) or simply because it's the sort of gag that can only really work once.

In any case, it (i.e. both versions) is a formula "home invasion" thriller in which an upperclass family is held captive and horrifically tortured in their vacation home by a pair of psychotic preppies. And that's all there is to it, at least as far as the "story" is concerned. In setup, it's using the same ingredients list as a hundred other movies in this particular subgenre of exploitation shockers: Bad guys do terrible things to good guys, delivering the audience an allotment of icky chills traded-off on the presumption that this will "morally permit" the good guys to eventual deliver a secondary allotment of righteous thrills by doing equally terrible things to the bad guys. It's the basic through-line that connects everything from "Fight For Your Life" to "Straw Dogs" to "Last House on The Left" to "Death Wish" to "Hostel."

The trick at play here is that Haneke has something Very Important he wants to say about the genre and a Very Stern message he'd like to send to it's fans. And make no mistake, the film's assault is aimed squarely at genre afficionados in this case: Haneke is quite intelligent, and understands that the folks who don't "require" his lecture (i.e. they agree with him about films of this type or just dislike violence in general) don't go to see movies with this plot description in the first place. Haneke, and his film, are nakedly boiling-over with contempt for filmgoers who indulge in vicarious movie-carnage and appreciate films meant to shock in the detached terms of "money shots" and it's effect on the other, less formally-aware in the audience.

The idea, then, is to browbeat consumers of cinema-grosteque by staging the formula without gimmicks, characterization (theres no reason or origin-story for the baddies) a total absence of violent "money shots" (gore is essentially nonexistant and kills occur off-camera) and not merely a lack of 'payback' but a mocking smack across the face to reprimand the viewer for wanting it in the first place. And, in case all that's too subtle for you, the lead baddie habitually breaks the fourth wall to converse privately with the audience and eventually reveals the power to bend the rules of the movieverse to his will. The movie, and it's maker, are both very bothered that you showed up to see a film of this type... and they intend to make you pay.

But don't misconstrue my awareness of the game, nor my all-to-apparent annoyance with the thesis of his sermon, to mean that the film is "bad" or even an unsuccessful presentation of it's case. Quite the contrary. Haneke's film can indeed count dubious titles like the infamous "Cannibal Holocaust" or the Christian anti-drug slasher opus "Blood Freak" as it's spiritual-forebearers in the obscure subset of "message-horror" movies, but in terms of filmmaking it's in a class by itself: Alongside the already mentioned technical prowess, it also boasts startlingly rich performances by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the tormented couple and Michael Pitt as the lead villian.

This is a difficult sort of film to review, being as it is a remarkably well-made message-movie sermonizing with great conviction toward it's point... but said "point" is finally a bunch of hooey. I wonder if this is what it's like to work in the quality-control wing of Scientology's P.R. department? The makers of "Freak" and "Holocaust" were, at best, blatant hypocrites... while Haneke actually seems to believe his own line. I'm disinclined to say that one is really superior to the other, but they are certainly different.

FINAL RATING: A+ for the filmmaking; fuck-you-very-much for the lecture.