Funny Games, and Horror as Social Commentary

Funny Games is a slick and stylish horror film, very moody and atmospheric and tense throughout its entire running time, but it absolutely fails in its director’s mission to create a worthwhile piece of social commentary.

Here’s the basic premise: a rich white family is summering at a lake, and suddenly some teenagers (who claim to be the neighbor’s friends) show up: they’re also white, dressed immaculately in white (complete with white gloves), speak eloquently, and talk frequently of politeness. Their very presence is unnerving, and they continually cause problems, knocking cell phones into sinks, dropping eggs, etc. When told to leave, they become violent, turning on the family, then torturing them and playing violent games for the film’s final hour. Things become increasingly violent, until several members of the family are murdered, and the boys go on to the next neighbor’s house to repeat the process.

Three times in this film, the torturers turn to the audience and speak directly to us, breaking the film’s illusion of reality. The torturer appears to be chastising us for watching, for having empathy for the tortured family. Once, when something goes wrong and the family escapes, the torturer grabs a remote from the couch, rewinds, and the scene plays out in the excruciating opposite manner. The apparent purpose behind these odd narrative interruptions seems to be to toy with the audience, to make a comment about torture films specifically, and violence in cinema, in general. Why do we watch these movies? Why do we delight in violence? Etc.

But here’s the problem: the film is too slick, too violent, and enjoys the terror it creates far too much to actually criticize it. This isn’t A History of Violence, which diminishes each heroic act by forcing us to stare at the horrible results of the violence in the heroism. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, whose violence we watch in order to understand the horrors of war (even good wars). This is Funny Games, and it loves its torture scenes, loves every second of them, every spot of blood, every piece of grit…then suddenly criticizes its audience for empathizing with the victims, and hoping they get out. Um. What are we supposed to hope for? A movie without tension? We want a film that challenges its characters, and we want those characters to overcome their challenges. That’s drama. If the filmmaker (the filmmaker!) chooses torture as the challenge, that says more about the person creating the film than the person watching it.

I watched Funny Games because I thought it would be an interesting piece of commentary, and would employ interesting narrative strategies. It approached both of these ideas. But it utilized the “Torturer Talking to Audience” strategy only thrice (not nearly exploiting the concept to any real effect), and its commentary was misdirected. This was like watching a porn star criticize a pervert. No, no. Scratch that. This was like watching a porn star criticize the perversion of someone who is critical of porn…

Worst movie I’ve seen in awhile, because it could have actually been something important.

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