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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Although it didn't get a real wide theatrical release, Funny Games certainly ranks as one of the most controversial movies of the year among those who saw it. The picture's DVD release (on June 10) will only serve to fan the flames. This isn't a "love it or hate it" movie; it's more like an "admire it or detest the living hell out of it" movie. And I suspect director Michael Haneke wouldn't have it any other way. Funny Games never played in my area, so it was with great enthusiasm (and a touch of nervousness) that I sat down with the DVD of the film, which seemed to bring out the ire in a lot of other critics, many of whom lobbed words like "immoral" and "disgusting" in describing it. This is a punishing experience - it's designed to be - but I found myself in the seeming minority; I really found some meaning here.

The plot is very simple in Haneke's remake of his own 1998 Austrian film. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Ann and George, a married couple heading to their summer home with young son Georgie (Devon Gearheart) in tow. Two young men, dressed in white and wearing gloves, knock on the door, ostensibly asking to borrow eggs. In fact, Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt) are psychopaths. They hold the family hostage, then bet that all three of them will be dead by the next morning. What follows is a series of sadistic encounters as this poor family tries to escape.

In some ways, this sounds like a not-altogether original horror premise. But there is a twist: throughout the film, Paul occasionally breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience with little asides. At one point, he even looks at us and says of the family, "You're probably on their side, aren't you?" This is the game of the film; it's not about the family, it's about those of us who are watching.

To be honest, Funny Games is not a movie you watch for fun or entertainment. It's much too brutal for that. Instead, it's the kind of thing you watch as an exercise in filmmaking. Haneke has a point he's trying to make, and the whole picture is structured to make that point in as direct and disturbing a manner as possible. The original version was a commentary on the public's thirst for violence in media. This one is too, but it works on a whole other level given the popularity of "torture porn" movies in the last few years. Pictures like the Saw series and Hostel have turned excessive onscreen brutality into a spectator sport. The point of those movies is to watch innocent characters getting dismembered, mutilated, and eviscerated in increasingly foul ways. And let's face it - the audience digs it. If you took all the blood and gore out of the Saw movies, would anyone care about them?

This sort of audience bloodlust seems to appall Haneke, who sets out to show us how terrible violence really is. Like I said, the central situation is not altogether unfamiliar (in fact, the current film The Strangers has a nearly identical set-up), but the approach is. Haneke intentionally tries to disturb and repulse the audience, not by inventing bits of exploitation but by playing it real. He removes all the fantasy and catharsis from the situation, lingering on the incessant fear that Ann, George, and Georgie endure at the hands of Peter and Paul. The ghastly nature of what occurs is robbed of the dark beauty that torture porn filmmakers often try to bring to it. It's almost as if Haneke is saying, "You think it's fun to watch people getting tormented? Well, I'll show you how much fun it really is by making you squirm uncomfortably until you're sick to your stomach."

One of the ways he does this is to repeatedly defy audience expectations. For instance, all the actual violence occurs off-screen. The director knows that many audiences want to see the violence. It's theoretically what they are paying for. For that reason, he denies it to bloodthirsty viewers weaned on watching sick stuff happen to other people. Another example comes near the end, when Haneke fakes us out, making us think for a moment that he's giving us the kind of resolution we want, only to cruelly snatch all hope away once more.

In a sense, Peter and Paul (in particular) are stand-ins for people who go to horror movies to get a rush out of the violence. They want what many viewers want. By playing the scenario realistically, the viewer uncomfortably identifies with the psychos and therefore must rethink his/her attraction to such material. After all, these guys are genuinely sick and evil, and if we're rooting for them to kill this poor innocent family, then we must be too.

Obviously, this kind of thing isn't going to play well with everybody. I'm not the least bit surprised that many people hated both versions of Funny Games. I thought it was adventurous and brave. As a critic, I've endured way too many horror movies that invite the audience to enjoy acts of sadism and brutality. Unsettling as it is to watch, Funny Games lays all the cards on the table, taking a stand against the fascination (bordering on obsession) pop culture has with violence. It ain't easy to sit through, folks, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't admire what the director is doing.

The performances are terrific. Michael Pitt is genuinely menacing in an understated way as Paul. Just notice the scene where he offers the family a lot of useless "excuses" for his behavior. He knows those excuses are B.S. which makes him that much creepier. As good as Pitt is, the center of the film really belongs to Naomi Watts, who I think is the very best actress working today. Watts is known not for playing emotions but for sinking herself in them. Her performance as a scared, frightened woman will send shivers down your spine, because she genuinely appears to be experiencing Ann's fear to the bone. At one point, Watts sits on a couch, hair messed, tears running down her face, snot dangling from her nose. She looks beaten and worn down. That's not acting; it's total immersion in a character. Because of the tough subject matter, Watts will never get an Oscar nomination for the film, but she deserves one.

I'm definitely recommending this movie on DVD, but only to adventurous viewers who are interested in seeing a filmmaker make an artistic statement. Watch it as a conventional horror movie and you'll be disappointed. Watch it as a star-studded drama and you'll be aghast. You have to appreciate the movie for what it is: a statement that isn't pretty but is definitely needed. After several years of "torture porn" horror flicks, Funny Games sets the counter back to zero, reminding us that torture isn't fun, isn't stimulating, and isn't something we should be getting off on.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

Funny Games hits DVD on June 10, with widescreen and fullscreen versions on the same disc. There are no bonus features. Normally, I'd be clamoring for a director's commentary track, but in this case, the whole movie is the director's commentary.

Funny Games is rated R for terror, violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.

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