If Michael Moore were to try his hand at torture porn, the result might look a lot like Funny Games. This is a skillfully made film designed to inspire American audiences to examine their appetite for movie violence. Had it been made by an American director, I suspect the reaction from critics in this country might have been less dismissive. By and large, reviewers have conceded that the picture is exceptionally gripping and suspenseful, while deriding its moral subtext as a crock. The only possible explanation for such fuming pettiness, in my opinion, is the fact that Michael Haneke isn’t one of us.
Haneke is Austrian. Even more damning to some, he’s an Austrian who lives in France. So who is he to suggest there’s something a tad questionable about the way we’ve turned suffering into a spectator sport? Well, he’s the award-winning director of films such as Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, The Time of the Wolf and Caché. He’s spent his career making serious movies that make statements about serious social issues. Along the way, he’s proven himself a bona fide visionary.
Haneke’s latest film — his first English-language work — is actually a shot-for-shot remake of the German version he released in 1997. Which means he invoked the specter of an America ever more desensitized to violence well before there was such a thing as ultra-violent video games, movies such as Hostel and Saw, or, for that matter, the massacre at Columbine.
The two young men who wreak the havoc at the heart of Funny Games identify themselves variously as Peter and Paul, Beavis and Butt-Head and Tom and Jerry — but Eric and Dylan would have been at least as apt for this new version, which is set in the present-day U.S. Played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, they’re a pair of sociopaths dressed for tennis but on the prowl for blood sport.
On the receiving end is a well-to-do family consisting of Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Devon Gearhart. The three, along with their dog Lucky, have just arrived at their gated, lakeside home as the movie begins. The first ominous note is struck when they drive by the estate of their nearest neighbor, who seems oddly distracted when Watts attempts to say hello. He is standing in his yard with his mute wife beside two preppie strangers wearing white gloves.
Moments later, as Watts stocks the fridge and makes preparations for dinner, Corbet materializes in her doorway. He is presently joined by Pitt, who takes an immediate interest in the husband’s expensive golf clubs. The uninvited visitors are soft spoken and well mannered. At least until they’re asked to leave, and Pitt shatters Roth’s right leg with his own expensive driver.
Home invasion is not a subject that’s new to cinema, of course. What’s new here is the motivation for it. In Cold Blood was about drifters who wanted money. The assassin in Suddenly seeks the perfect vantage point from which to shoot a president. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex and his droogs are merely passing through to rape and pillage. Pitt and Corbet, by contrast, desire from their victims nothing more or less than the momentary tingle of absolute control.
It is an understatement to say things get worse for the family as the evening progresses. Terrible, revolting, infuriating torments are meted out. Unbelievably cruel games are played. Then, in the midst of the humiliation and the horror, something occurs that displeases Pitt. He picks up a nearby remote control and rewinds the movie’s action to the point just before that development — and the terror picks up from there as if nothing meta had happened.
The film’s breaking of the fourth wall has been criticized as a gimmick, but I have to say, I felt it worked superbly. The story is so compelling, the acting so unusually good and the direction so flawless that, if Haneke didn’t jump in to remind you all this stomach-turning mayhem had been orchestrated for your entertainment, you’d be unlikely to pause and reflect on your complicity. Which is the point, after all. As much as the filmmaker wants his audience to get caught up in the action, what he wants it to do even more is think about why it bought a ticket in the first place.
Michael Moore talks about this country’s uniquely violent tendencies — as he did in Bowling For Columbine — and he deservedly wins an Oscar. Haneke goes at the same subject from a different angle, and it earns him nearly universal disdain from critics across the U.S. Both pictures invite their audience to consider the same general sociological conundrum, yet the one made by an outsider is widely dismissed. Call me crazy, but unless I’m wrong, there’s something a little bit funny about that.