Movie critics are a hardy breed and they’re not easily frightened. But Funny Games is scaring the pants off some of them. The Washington Post’s John Anderson calls the film “über-disturbing,” while Owen Gleiberman, in Entertainment Weekly, refers to it as “sadistic and terrifying” and Esquire’s Mike D’Angelo suggests that it gave him a “nervous breakdown.” Dana Stevens of Slate sounds positively traumatized: “I walked out of `the movie theater` literally shaking with dread … My hands could barely operate the touch screen” of an ATM.
Other critics seem more repulsed than merely frightened. The politically pointed Armond White of the New York Press calls it “a tasteless and revolting miscalculation.” As for the reliably unsophisticated Claudia Puig of USA Today, she ends her review with this tantrum: “One can’t help but leave the theater angry to have wasted time on this despicable, conscience-free exercise in pointless horror.”
Oh, one can’t, can’t one?
Written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (Caché, The Piano Teacher), the new film is a scene-by-scene remake of his 1997 German-language production. It tells the tale of an affluent family that is subjected to a horrific assault upon arriving at their county vacation home. Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), two well-spoken young men in tennis whites, politely introduce themselves before assaulting, humiliating and (let’s just say) threatening to kill Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth) and their pre-adolescent son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart).
In terms of the critical reaction, what’s really happening is that some reviewers have accepted that the movie is about what filmmaker Haneke says it’s about. He has called it a “reaction” to the usual run of exploitative American horror movies, and some critics have taken these remarks at face value. But, as Andrew O’Hehir astutely puts it for Salon.com, “When a work is misunderstood, does it mean what its creator thinks it does?”
Yes, Haneke may have a political point or two to make along the way, but his film is basically a gripping, carefully crafted, sensitively acted thriller that confounds your expectations at every turn. It may be a remake, but, in the most important sense, it’s original. And shouldn’t that be enough?
Of course, this sort of thing is not for everyone. Even though Haneke doesn’t actually show the story’s most extreme violence, the movie gets into your system. Slate’s Stevens is right to feel shaken up, but is wrong in dismissing Funny Games as a “grueling ethics exam” awash in “ponderous nihilism.”
If it’s so damn grueling and ponderous, Dana, why were you shaking so hard?
Meanwhile, I have to point out that the most unintentionally funny dismissal of Funny Games is offered by The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, who, with characteristic Olympian reserve, refers to this masterful production simply as an “error.” Lane, whose special mission is to provide an irrelevant British perspective to his American readers, manages, for once, to get through an entire review without an allusion to Shakespeare, James Bond or the royal family – although he does invoke London, Hitchcock and a “British skinhead” once played by Roth.
Movies may come and go, the lofty Lane seems to be saying, but there will always be an England. He may be right about that, but he’s bloody wrong about Funny Games.firstname.lastname@example.org