A film review by Craig J. Koban




FUNNY GAMES zero stars

2008, R, 112 mins.


Ann: Naomi Watts / George: Tim Roth / Paul: Michael Pitt / Peter: Brady Corbet / Georgie: Devon Gearhart

Written and directed by Michael Haneke / Based on his 1997 German film


I find it next to impossible to discuss the following film in any level of discernable detail without revealing significant aspects of the film’s plot.  So, consider this whole review one with SPOILERS.  You’ve been warned.  

Very rarely do I ever like to throw out a simple term like “hate” when reviewing a film, but FUNNY GAMES is just such a film that begs me to use it.  I am not sure how else to describe my reaction to this film other that to say that...I hated it.  Really hated it.  It's the type of experience where you pray someone in the theatre would get up and scream, "Would someone stop this madness!"  

To be frank and honest, I was almost ready to volunteer for that task.

Why I am so cruel to FUNNY GAMES, you ask?  Well, maybe it has something to do with the fact that it's intellectually pompous, artistically conceited, gratuitously banal, and unpleasantly manipulative.  The fact that the film has A-list stars of talent giving great performances makes it all the more unwatchable.  Even more stunning is how FUNNY GAMES is simply one of the most hypocritical films that I have ever seen.   While watching it I felt it was like one great example of the pot calling the kettle black.  It's a maddening experience, almost to the point of compelling me to jab a pencil in my eye. 

This all leads me to my other big complaint about FUNNY GAMES:  It’s a completely unnecessary remake, done shot-for-shot, akin to Gus Van Sant’s abortive PSYCHO re-issue years ago.  FUNNY GAMES was originally a 1997 Austrian horror film (unseen by me) that attempted (I have read) to take standard audience expectations of the horror/thriller genre and radically turn them over on their heads.  The director, Michael Haneke (whom has an academic background in psychology and philosophy) was attempting to look at the context of on screen violence and carnage and, in turn, make it as uncomfortable and distasteful to sit through as possible.  His main motivation seems to be tackling the notion that mainstream audiences seem detached from the constant barrage of violent imagery that they view in mass marketed films (a decent and valid point) and that, by giving them a film that throws violence at them that is not glamorized to entertain, he hopes to make people experience brutality and sadism for what it really is. 

This is where all of my misgivings start with his remake.  Firstly, this version does not need to exist at all in any way shape or form.  Despite a few minor alterations from the 1997 version, this 2008 film is shot-for-shot, word-for-word identical in every way.  Haneke’s modus operandi is simple:  He has gone on record to say how American films toy with human beings and make violence a consumable property.  To a large degree, that’s true.  So, in an effort to "enlighten" us, he made an Americanized film with mainstream actors in hopes of making his message more accessible, seeing that lay filmgoers would never feel compelled to see an Austrian horror-comedy with subtitles. 

I find that rationale more than a bit condescending and offensive…not to mention ironic.  FUNNY GAMES will never make a huge dent in the consciousness of mainstream filmgoers because, at its core, it's an art house film with big name stars.  This film is no more or less accessible as its 1997 counterpart.  I also take exception to the fact that Haneke indirectly implies that North American audiences would never want to see his original film, which stings with portentous artistic grandstanding and self-importance. 

What’s even worse is that this film tries to force its collective message down our “idiotic” and “ignorant” throats when, in the long run, it uses violence and wanton cruelty to voyeuristic, perverted glee to the same levels of the films Haneke is attacking.  What results is not a film that is anywhere near as thought provoking or stimulating as the filmmaker thinks it is.  Instead, FUNNY GAMES is just a vile, putrid, grotesque, shameful, and hateful endurance test of human suffering and indignity all while it tries to condemn American films for having the same traits.  This is what makes the film reprehensible and an infuriating experience to sit through.  FUNNY GAMES is just misery piled upon misery and only leads to more emotional detachment from viewers.  Instead wanting us to share in the pain of the film’s victims, Haneke paradoxically keeps us more at a distance.  Films are rarely as unendurable and nihilistic as this one. 

Perhaps what’s most degrading is the notion that the film has great talent on screen that collectively give the most thankless performances in a long, long time.  I will give the film credit by saying that the intense grief, despair, pain, and horror that the personas display here are absolutely believable.  The film opens with modest serenity as we see a fairly wealthy upper class family on their way to their summer home.  There is the mother, Anna (Naomi Watts, also dubiously serving as the film’s executive producer), her husband George (Tim Roth) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearheart, giving a miraculous performance despite all of the emotional and physical torture he has to suffer through later in the film).  They arrive safe and sound with their dog, and you just know that in a horror/thriller that no canine will ever be safe. 

As the family prepares for their extended stay they receive a surprise visit from a strange young man named Peter (Brady Corbet, oozing creepiness), who claims that he has been sent on an errand by a neighbor to borrow some eggs.  Peter is polite, soft-spoken, and meager-minded.  Yet, something is just…well…weird about him in Anna’s eyes.  She becomes so bothered by this slimy kid that she asks him to leave.  At this point Peter’s even weirder older sibling, Paul (Michael Pitt, in a performance that is like fingernails on a chalkboard) shows up and appears even nicer, almost in a Stepford Wives kind of way.  Peter and Paul just don’t understand why Anna is being so rude to them and why she won’t give them some eggs.  George arrives on the scene and within a few tense minutes the situation gets completely unhinged. 

From here the film straddles the hemispheres between being unbearable and excruciating.  Paul takes one of George’s golf clubs and completely shatters George’s leg, sending him to the ground shrieking in pain.  That’s just the start of this film’s onslaught of maliciousness.  The rest of the movie is one gigantic snowball effect where the two deeply disturbed brothers hold the family hostage and play malevolent mind games with them.  One involves Anna playing a game of Hot/Cold as Paul directs her as to where to find their family dog, which Paul brutally killed.  Then the brothers ask Anna to take her clothes off in front of her son and husband to see if she has as much body fat as Peter.  She refuses and Paul accosts the young Georgie to the point where you can hear his screams bellow through the cinema’s speakers.  Paul then takes a pillowcase, tightly places it over Georgie’s head, and threatens to suffocate him if Anna does not capitulate.  Georgie then defecates in his pants.  Anna agrees and disrobes. 

And so on and so on… 

There is no effort whatsoever to develop any of these characters, even the tortured family members.  Everyone is a cardboard cutout.  We never know who these people are, not to mention that the intentions and motivations of the captors are never made clear at all.  What’s equally damning is the way Paul, the person of our biggest contempt, breaks the cinematic fourth wall, looks at the audience with an annoying smirk on his face, and addresses us.  At one point he makes a wager with the family that they will not make it through the evening alive.  He then stares at the audience with condemnation and asks us, “What do you think? Do they stand a chance?” 

What the hell?  Is this supposed to be funny?  Or, is this some kind of in-joke and bit of aggravating wink-wink self-awareness that FUNNY GAMES portrays?  It appears that Paul addressing the audience is this film’s deplorable way of getting viewers to partake in this duo’s sickening and monstrously rigged bet within the film.  The wager to the family (and us) is that this family will be dead at a certain time, all for the purpose of helping to fill our expectations of this type of genre film.  At one point Paul looks at us and states, “You’re probably on their (the family’s) side.”  After this the duo go on a long spree of committing actions of impossible vindictiveness and nastiness on the family.  Once they get a shotgun in their hands and we see young Georgie’s brain and innards blasted all over the TV set, is their any doubt that Paul and Peter are going to win their bet with us? 

Consider one scene, which has to be one of the most peculiar I have ever seen.  Paul and Peter are about to finish George and Anna off, but Anna successfully grabs the shotgun and blasts Peter away.  I wanted to applaud and scream “Halleluiah!”  Then the unspeakable happens:  Paul grabs a remote control, hits the rewind button, and the film literally rewinds itself back to the point just before Anna gets a hold of the gun.  Smirking to the camera again, Paul’s omnipotent presence in the film stops Anna from getting the gun and killing his brother, all for the sake of manipulating our expectations for the hope of a lone survivor and so the two can finally – fiiiiiinnnaaallly – kill the wife and husband once and for all. 


FUNNY GAMES is worse and more anguishing than any other film in the torture porn genre.  I have never liked nor supported the genre, but torture porn does not lie to viewers, nor does it ever once hide behind any semblance of pontificating pretentiousness that FUNNY GAMES harbors.  Films like the HOSTEL series makes no bones for what they really are.  What makes FUNNY GAMES all the more unpardonable is that it’s just a HOSTEL-inspired bit of torture porn wrapped up within a body of hokey intellectual posturing.  Haneke goes out of his way here to tell us how much we relish blood and gore, but in FUNNY GAMES he just dishonorably offers up a spectacle of similar atrocities, and in prolonged and detailed fashion.  This film decries sadistic overkill and then engages in it.  What really sucks is the way Haneke has the nerve to indirectly tell us that his film is essentially medicine for our own good.  

Thanks a pant load, Dr. Haneke. 

Perhaps the only way this film could have worked if there was some thoughtful and insightful commentary about the rationale of the violence itself.  FIGHT CLUB, for instance, is a violent film that sort of defends the anarchistic actions of its anti-heroes as a way of fighting against societal materialisms and excess.  Maybe FUNNY GAMES could have been a slick and insidiously mounted satire about the negative windfalls of a yuppie, upper class lifestyle.  The family depicted is rich and live prosperously and there is some focus in the film about the subtle details of their extravagant lifestyles (cell phones, boats, expensive cars, etc).   

There is one scene where the couple try to get their cell phone to dry after its been knocked into the sink so they can make a phone call to the police.  If the film was a satirical attack on rampant consumerism gone amok, then the message here would have been that the objects of the family’s desirous materialism wouldn't be enough to save them from homicidal lunatics.  FUNNY GAMES never, ever attempts commentary like this.  Instead, it’s all about cheap, gimmicky, and heartless punishment…both to the characters in the film and the viewers.  As it stands, Haneke’s film is a pointless and useless vision that’s succeeds at showing contempt for its audience.  FUNNY GAMES thinks it’s a hell of a lot smarter than its viewers and, as a result, it displays its very own condemnable academic and artistic naiveté.    

In short…I hated it.

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