Written and Directed by Michael Haneke, 2008
Michael Haneke is a difficult filmmaker for me to review. The man is a dense master worthy of the Kubrick comparison ax. He can cut a scene like no ones business and he can stretch a take to the limit and beyond. His rapport with actors is boundless, coaxing performances from already brave actors that are, well, braver. Haneke’s films are smart, sharp, and ooze subtle, slow sickness. They have a rare confidence to them that causes the critic in me to stumble, so I apologize if the disconnected nature of this review reflects that.
I had much the same response to CACHE as I did to FUNNY GAMES U.S., which is the official title of the Austrian’s remake of his own decade-old film. I do more than just appreciate it on a technical level, I marvel at the talent on display. I admire the components of his film(s) so much that I end up convincing myself I must also like the assembly of it more than I do. Combine this with what I believe to be critical peer pressure — if you’re a detractor, you’re too simple to ‘get’ it – and I feel myself wanting to join the enthusiasm. Truth is, I’m indifferent.
This review of FUNNY GAMES U.S. has been sitting unfinished for over two weeks and now I realize why; I don’t care. Haneke’s film showcases an upper class, white, American family being held hostage and tortured by two upper class, white, college aged males. What FUNNY GAMES is about, however, is a different matter altogether. It is about the integration of violence into our society and vice versa. The hallmark of the script are moments in which Haneke breaks the fourth wall, implicating the audience in the torture on display, daring us to either look away or enjoy it, knowing full well that we will neither look away nor enjoy it. And he’s right. I neither looked away nor enjoyed it, but I’ll always respect it.
Before proceeding, I bring into light another reason for the delinquency of this review; GAMES is not a horror movie. It is an anti-horror picture, an exploitation of the genre’s conventions as a means of critiquing films as a whole. Seeing as I feel Haneke fails to address the genre with any specific weight, instead delivering a broad sermon on people, I wasn’t sure it belonged on the site at all.
Naomi Watts (who, for the record, is the sexiest actress around in my book precisely because of the roles she choses; Maria Bello in a close second) gives a fearless performance tackling action that would cause most Hollywood actresses to slap their agents for giving them a script like this. Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet fit their characters so well that it will take years of subsequent work before I separate them from this film. Tim Roth is great as well, though his patriarchal George is (intentionally) outshined by everyone else in the film.
The first hour or so of FUNNY GAMES U.S. is magnificent. Utter magnificence. I cannot think of a single ill thought for this portion of the film. The music, the build, the characters! Perfection, plain and simple. And then everything crashes. Haneke slaps the film with the eye opening fist of reality in a single take (literally) and things are never the same for viewers or characters. This is intentional, mind you, but unnecessarily obvious. Haneke introduces a twist that (again, literally) denies the viewer the entertainment side of what they, as consumers, have just paid for. It is a challenge the viewer conquers only to have their reward ripped away. I can’t complain about the effect – it is undeniable – just that Haneke does it all with the subtlety of a billboard advertising a Strip Club for truckers on I-95.
There is a keen difference between outwitting someone and out-talking them. While Michael Haneke is no doubt of remarkable intelligence, I think FUNNY GAMES U.S. is proof that the volume of his cinematic voice is louder than the brain telling it what to say. I get it, I just don’t need it. He could have delivered an identical message with different technique and his film would be better for it. Instead, I feel it is self-fulfilling, almost as if the film were alive and psychotic, turning its rows of shark teeth to feast upon itself midway. I appreciate the art of creating such an angry isolating film, but I fail to see why we shouldn’t just turn our back on a film that has turned its back on us.