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Excluding his last film "Cache", which I loved, every other Michael Haneke film I have watched ("The Piano Teacher", "The Time of the Wolf") has burned horrific images into my head that I have been unsuccessful at erasing. Yet I continue to subject myself to the abuse. Why? I'm not sure really, maybe it’s just the curiosity to see what madness Haneke will think of next. Maybe its because I know he is one of the few directors to constantly evoke some fierce reaction out of me.
"Funny Games" seems to take this voyeuristic curiosity to heart. Although I am not sure that this a good thing. The film is almost, so I am told, a shot for shot remake of his 1997 film of the same name. I have not seen the original, so I can only go by what is in the latest version. The remake stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a couple who, with young son in tow, go to their lush vacation home for a week. Once there they meet two overly polite young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who are apparently visiting their neighbors. Things quickly turn south and the couple is held hostage in there home. They are forced to endure hours of physical and psychological torture.
It is at this point were the film tries to achieve two things at once. On one hand “Funny Games” is a tense thriller reminiscent of the 1971 Dustin Hoffman film “Straw Dogs”. On the other, Haneke wants the film to be a scathing commentary on how America is obsessed with violence in cinema. As a straight thriller, the film hits all the right notes and keeps you hooked for the first half. The acting is top notch. Watts is outstanding as the terrorized mother who must find the inner strength, Roth plays the role of the spineless husband perfectly, and Pitt and Corbet are creepy enough to make their characters somewhat unpredictable. I should also mention that Devon Gearhart brings some of the best suspense to the film as Roth and Watt’s son.
As a social commentary, the film falters greatly. There is a point in the second half of the film, were Haneke plays with what the audience wants to see versus what he wants, that ruins the whole pacing afterwards. Haneke also incorporates devices, such as Michael Pitt breaking the forth wall to talk directly to the audience, to get his point across. The problem is, Haneke’s point is really nothing more than “shame on you for watching” and ”this is the stuff you like, isn’t it?” It is one thing to write an essay and deconstruct the topic of violence in cinema. It is another to make a disturbing piece of art, ask people to see it, and then wag your finger to those who came to see what you have made. If you really think about it, the majority of Haneke’s audience/fans are not the same people who made films like “Hostel” and “Saw” huge successes. To be honest, I find Haneke’s films far more violent and disturbing than the “Saw” and “Hostel” films combine. The only difference is that some of the violence in Haneke’s film is off-screen. As a result, the mental images he conjures up are far more frightening.
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