Saturday, January 31, 2009

Movie Review: Funny Games

I feel the adjectives coming. Lots of them, in fact. It would be nearly impossible to write a review for Funny Games without bucketsful of limiting, qualifying, and specifying modifiers. It’s just one of those rare movie experiences that warrant them.

Funny Games is writer/director Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of his own 1997 Austrian film. It’s a deceptively simple story of home invasion and the randomness of violence starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as an upwardly mobile couple who arrives at their lakeside vacation house with son and dog in tow. The family sets about re-opening the house, airing out rooms and launching their boat with the help of a neighbor and a young man named Paul (Michael Pitt) —who the neighbor identifies as a family friend staying with them. The boat is launched and the neighbor and his young guest leave. Nothing immediately triggers an alarm other than the family dog’s incessant barking at Paul and the neighbor’s odd, Stepford-like demeanor.

Soon, another identically dressed young man named Peter (Brady Corbet) shows up on the couple’s doorstep, asking to borrow eggs on behalf of the same neighbor. When the first batch of eggs is dropped just off camera, the audience experiences a gradual discomfit with Watts, who plays the drawn-out sequence to perfection. By the time Paul shows back up and the two young men are standing inside the house, decked out in crisp white tennis outfits and disconcerting white cloth gloves, the audience’s dread turns to fear. What immediately follows can only be described as the most polite home invasion on record, one that devolves into a night of unimaginable psychological and physical torture for the young couple and their son. At the heart of this home invasion is a wager that questions whether the family will be alive by 9:00 am the following morning.

Funny Games is essentially a horror movie grounded in almost unbearable reality. Haneke eschews nearly all convention and crafts a relentlessly tense, at times painfully uncomfortable movie-going experience. From his jarring choice of opening and closing music (Naked City’s frenetic “Bonehead”) to the breaking of taboos (They’d never hurt the kid, right?), Haneke crafts a profoundly affecting film that will disturb to the core. The juxtaposition of manners and wealth against the brutality of the sadistic games the two psychopaths force the family to participate in is stark and effective, and is brilliantly personified by the performances of the leads. Watts and Roth (and the remarkably good Devon Gearhart as son Georgie) are so convincing at times that you find yourself reaching for the phone to dial 911 on their behalf. They truly make the audience feel every terror, every humiliation and degradation, every physical pain they are subjected to. We see their will to survive sorely tested and watch, helpless, as their resolve crumbles under the weight of the psychological and physical torture. Pitt, in particular, turns in a masterful performance as the lead psychopath. His calculated, chilling performance is a bravado exercise in restraint. This kid’s come a long way since his days as the equal parts affable and adorable Henry on Dawson’s Creek.

Haneke is, quite simply, one hell of a gutsy director. He pulls off shocking sequences in such a measured way, with little to no lead up at times or any of the conventional horror tropes like escalating music or false scares. Even Darius Khondji’s straightforward cinematography and Rebecca Meis DeMarco’s minimalist set decoration complements Haneke’s unadorned cinematic tableau. In fact, this movie doesn’t have one sequence that will make you jump, its unbridled terror coming from Haneke’s torturously even pacing in which the mundane and horrific both occur on equal platform and in the lack of motivation for the violence that ensues. It’s in this casualness that the horror becomes so powerful, reminding the audience that true horror isn’t always dramatic or ushered in on carefully orchestrated set pieces. Although the film is likely to stay with you long after the closing credits, it’s Watts’ final scene that will leave you gasping in its minimalism and audacity.

Funny Games is a raw, honest story of violence, simultaneously shocking in its simplicity and inspired in its complexity. It’s a film that takes no prisoners, so be warned. Viewers will feel their stomachs gradually tightening, the pervasive element of suspense in the film a vice that grows tighter and tighter with each fiercely executed sequence. Don’t know how I missed this one when it was (briefly) released last April, but Funny Games would easily be included on a Top Ten Horror Movies of 2008 list had I done one.

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