Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Funny Games" Film Review

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Horror movies. You either love them or you hate them. The purpose of a horror film is to ignite some sort of fear in its audience. In the past decade, horror films have taken a sharp turn from the psychologically challenging and mind bending genre it used to be (exhibit A: “The Shining”) and have morphed into a display case for obscure and creatively vulgar ways of showcasing massacred human carnage (exhibit B: the ever expanding, ever annoying “Saw” franchise). Whether you’re rooting for Drew Barrymore to run away from being carved like a jack o’ lantern in the beginning of “Scream” or you’re sitting as far away from your TV as possible while watching “The Ring” in case Samara walks out to get you, we can all agree that the starting point of a horror film is that we, as an audience, like to be scared.

But what does that say about us? Doesn’t fear have a negative connotation to it? As a horror movie buff myself, I’ve often been asked why I like to feel scared, when in the real world, that’s a feeling most people try to avoid. I get a deep concerned look with condescending eyes drilling holes through my skull while being asked what kind of sick things I’m personally into if I enjoy these films, along with a side dish of snide comments about how perhaps I should be seeking counseling. Because, yes, clearly since I enjoy “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I too have fantasies about butchering oversexed teenagers and using their skin for my own personal face masks.

What I find the most terrifying in a film, however, is realism. Something like being trapped in a house full of rabid zombies doesn’t really make me scared because I don’t believe that I’ll ever be in that situation. It’s when movies depict real people in a seemingly ordinary setting facing some sort of life-or-death conflict that my blood starts to pulse. Recently, a group of my friends and I decided to rent the 2007 film “Funny Games,” written and directed by German filmmaker Michael Haneke. What ensued was a group of ten people quietly gathered around a television set, none of us uttering a word or even moving a muscle, unless it was to put a hand over our open, stunned, gaping mouths.

Warning: this article will contain major plot spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further. You’ve been warned. “Funny Games” tells the story of husband and wife Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) and their son Georgie (Devon Farver) as they go on a vacation to their country house, only to be taken hostage in their own home by two psychotic young men named Peter and Paul (played equally chillingly by Michael Pitt and Brady Cobert). After breaking George’s leg with a golf club, they make a bet with the family that they won’t survive the night and that the whole family will be dead by 9:30 the following morning.

The movie is a brilliant commentary on both film making and its audience. What I love most about it is that it causes its audience to forget what they know and toss all expectations about film out the window. As movie watchers, we are used to certain conventions coming into play and specific “conflict before resolution” formulas so that by the time we leave the movie theater, our sense of morality is restored and we can go on with our day without feeling profoundly disturbed. We’re used to perfectly packaged stories that adhere to a specific moral code and keep up our faith in a world where good triumphs over evil. With this film, Haneke takes these rules and expected comfort levels and turns them inside out.

When we watch movies, we don’t expect the fourth wall to be broken. We watch movies knowing that we as the audience are not directly involved in the conversations the characters are having, nor do our feelings about the film impact the end result. In “Funny Games,” one of the home invaders turns to the audience and begins to speak to them, questioning what we are thinking: “I bet you’re on their side, right?” he asks in a moment that not only terrifies viewers, but makes us feel like we are inside of Peter and Paul’s sick and twisted psychological torture chamber, being played just like Ann and George are. This further scares the audience by raising the question: what’s fact and what’s fiction? If we’re somehow involved in this film, does it make it more real? Are we then, by default, more susceptible to this type of terror?

Another way this movie breaks conventions is by not giving any real motive for the antagonist’s actions. While in most films that involve murderers there is a drawn out purpose behind their evil ways, “Funny Games” doesn’t give any specified reason for why Peter and Paul do what they do. The world is full of evil and often there is no crazy twist at the end of a murder case that explains the exact reason that caused someone to lash out the way they did. In the real world, evil exists and sometimes the point is not the attack against a single person but rather the need to make evil happen. Peter and Paul perform the same stunts on three families in this film. (there’s a strong indication that they attacked two other families). Why were these families chosen? They were there and Peter and Paul had the power to attack them. That’s all. Some audience members find that frustrating and a cop-out, but I find that chilling to the bone due to its unfortunate accuracy.

In films like these, there’s always the “survivor girl” (a term I learned from the campy and deliciously hysterical horror-comedy “Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon”), or at least one main character who survives to tell the tale. While innocent people are killed off throughout the film, one expects there to be at least one person left over. This gives the audience a sense of hope that they’ll be able to report the gruesome events that happened to them and make sure that the bad guy is caught … again, restoring our moral values and making us feel better about the film. In “Funny Games,” however, there are no survivors. Peter and Paul were right: nobody in the family does survive. Georgie, the little boy, is shot in the head. While we do not see this happening, we hear the gun being shot and the both tear evoking and horrified reaction that Ann and George have about their dead son. Now if brutally killing innocent children doesn’t go against the mold of the typical Hollywood blockbuster, then I don’t know what does.

Furthermore, Ann’s death happens so nonchalantly that, if you blink, you may miss it. While tied up with rope and duct tape around her mouth, Peter and Paul take her out on a boat in broad daylight. All of a sudden, they realize it’s 9:30 and she’s still alive, so they simply push her off the boat, letting her sink to her grave. Up until this point, I expected her to survive and get revenge – to be given one last chance to fight back or at least even curse her captors out. Instead, there was no dramatic hero music playing in the background and zero chances for her to break free. In real life, there is no moment like this. There is no miraculous plot twist that saves your life. Often times those that are captured like Ann don’t live to tell the story, despite what previous films have taught us.

The film’s thesis, it seems, was how we as an audience are numb to violence. While this is a horribly disturbing movie, most of the violence actually happens off screen. In the scene where Georgie is shot, we see Paul making himself a sandwich in the kitchen and all we hear is Peter pulling the trigger and the shot going off in the other room. I found myself frustrated to be watching this seemingly mundane task of spreading peanut butter on bread when I felt like I should be watching the little boy save himself and turn the gun around on the bad guy in the last second. Haneke deliberately lets these traumatic events happen outside of the audience’s range of vision because he wants them to have the reaction I did. Like Paul making the sandwich, we as an audience are hungry – we’re hungry for violence. We’re so used to seeing violence that when we know it’s going on, even though it may be sick and disgusting, we expect and sometimes want to see it. He teases this notion by showing us what happens before and after violence occurs, but never the violence actually happening. By the time Ann is about to be killed off, we’re so numb to what’s happened to her that we’re already anxious about the boat heading over to the next family that will be terrorized, making us care less about Ann and more about the people who are about to be targeted next. Our lack of devoted sympathy to Ann proves Heneke’s point that we are too consumed by violence to even really be effected by it anymore.

In movies, we also expect that once events have occurred, there is no going back and erasing them to start over. That’s why everyone I was with gasped in confusion and horror when, after Ann shoots Paul, the film looks like it’s being rewound to right before she picks up the gun, and instead Paul survives and points the gun at Ann. Why not rewind and do a second take on something that’s already happened? As a film maker, Haneke had every right to do so. It’s again challenging the conventions we expect versus the reality of what would most likely happen in a situation like this. It would be unrealistic to give Ann the chance to be the heroine all of a sudden, as Peter and Paul’s tactics are too carefully and skillfully devised to employ that kind of gambit. Therefore, the audience is temporarily satisfied by having their expectations filled, but Haneke quickly strips them of that and instead serves them a heavy dose of what would really happen rather than what would happen in Hollywood.

While “Funny Games” is not a film for the weak of heart, it is also certainly not a film for those who don’t like to be mentally challenged. It starts out as a seemingly typical thriller, but then all of a sudden presents its audience with horrifying issues: they range from what it must feel like to be completely incapable of helping your family in a time of despair to dealing with the aftermath of a psycopath’s bloody spree whose sole purpose was the sheer pleasure of the power thrill that it produced. If you can walk away from all that with your sense of a moral order intact, you’re doing a lot better than I did.