In most of the reviews I’ve read of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the film is said to be an assault on the audience via disturbing physical and psychological torture of its characters. A twisted set of events begins when two mild-mannered young men clad in white (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) enter the vacation home of George (Tim Roth), Ann (Naomi Watts), and their young son Georgie (Devon Gearheart). “Let’s play a game,” Paul (Pitt) says. “How about you bet you’ll be alive at 9 tomorrow morning, and we’ll bet you’ll be dead!” Pitt delivers the line with wide-eyed delight, the kind of excitement we’d expect from the family’s young boy, who stares blankly at Paul shivering and crying in utter terror––much more in touch with reality than elder Paul is.
I didn’t find Funny Games particularly scary on a visceral level. I’m not saying this to suggest I have a hard stomach for movies like this. I don’t. I over-think them and too often imagine what it would be like to be in the characters’ shoes. I try to freak myself out. Funny Games invites its audience to do just that – freak itself out. Funny Games establishes a genre that marries horror with documentary.
The film’s best moments stem from the depiction of the aftermath of an evening of unfathomable torture. (Warning: plot spoiler approaching.) In the wee hours of that morning, the two sociopaths leave George on the floor nursing a bleeding knee broken hours before and Ann in her underwear, bound at wrists and ankles. One shot stands out in my mind. It lasted a good few minutes, which naturally, given the rapid bursts of violence preceding it, felt like an eternity.
It is the family’s living room, where the tortures had taken place. A couch faces away from us in the foreground, and a couch faces us in the background. George lies in the far left corner of the screen, behind the front couch, and Ann hunches in the near right corner beside the front couch, diagonally across from him. Beyond her, we see her son’s blood splattered against the white wall. Though it is out of sight, we know his body still lies there, drenched in the blood oozing from the back of his head.
Ann and George breathe not sighs, but maybe gasps of relief. Their son’s corpse lies behind them, but the sheer horror of his murder has not quite set in yet. It is clear that what is on their minds is also on our mind: “What do we do now?” And this, I think, is the most interesting element of a horror film. What does a person do after hours upon hours of the unimaginable?
In this prolonged shot, we watch Ann struggle to stand up. And the camera doesn’t cut away when her endeavors prove futile and, frankly, a little boring. It stays there, gazing at her. Our female protagonist—a hero of sorts for surviving this long—now begins desperately to stand up. She throws herself back, trying to balance on her feet, but each time falls back forward onto her knees. She hops closer to the couch’s corner, trying to bounce up and lean against it to get herself upright. It’s exhausting and frustrating just to watch (she can endure the brothers’ terrible mind games but can’t stand up?). Because of his injury, George is out of commission, placing him in an emasculated role we don’t see too often in films like these. Ann eventually stands up, huffing and puffing after all the energy it took. She leaves the frame and, as if in real time, returns a good few minutes later, finally no longer bound up.
This real-time effect is twofold: it makes the film much more real, more so than shots of the gory violence would have. In comparison to generations past, I don’t think there is any doubt that most of us kids today are somewhat desensitized to violence. It doesn’t instill the horror that it might once have. But we rarely see our heroes this antiheroic. Their physical and also psychological paralysis plays itself out slowly, thereby making us feel much closer to the characters. The brutality becomes all the more real, and in this way, all the more chilling.
But such prolonged visual silence also gives the audience plenty of time to mull over the utter profundity of what it’s just seen. All I could think about were the years of therapy the couple (no longer family) would need after this night. I imagined their marriage falling apart, each scarred forever. The deliberative pause the film took at this point offered me the opportunity to do just what I needed to do to freak myself out: over-think it.
And the logistical horrors just continued. What do you do in the absence of a landline and a working cell phone? How do you call on your neighbors for help from their gated driveways? George and Ann are completely alone, the original appeal of their secluded vacation home now contributing to their helplessness.
Because of his bum knee, George sits by their soaked cell phone with a hairdryer in an almost comedic effort to resurrect it. Ann throws on the first thing she finds in their unpacked suitcases—literally, throws on clothes she can run in. I found these simultaneous and really very unimportant actions fascinating. Watts’ performance was spectacular. Through her hurried breathing, her curt replies, and her darting eyes I could tell her character’s mind was operating at an almost supernaturally rapid and efficient pace. It was the decisions essential to their survival—does she run outside? Does she risk running into the brothers?—that kept Ann’s mind of her young son’s tragic murder, while for George, it was the mindless and ultimately futile action of blow-drying a decrepit cell phone that absorbed him and preserved his sanity, if only for a few more moments.
Through stylistic and narrative choices like this, the reality of the horror set in, and at times I felt like I was watching an authentic record of an unnaturally tragic demise. To intellectualize the film the way that others have—depicting it purely as an assault on the audience—is to miss the brilliance in some of these subtle touches that really do play with your mind. It is better to look at Funny Games not as a horrific intellectual film, but as an intellectual horror film.