“Shot Through the Heart” is a new weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we discuss one of the weirdest films we could have ever received: 2007’s Funny Games.
I’m such a sucker for stories with a gimmick. Sure, they’re obnoxious sometimes, but they’re also delightful when the gag works. Back in 1997 there was this German film, Funny Games, and it was highly regarded and mostly ignored by American audiences and the world at large. Sure, there were some critics and arthouse folk that sought it out and lauded it, but director Michael Haneke wanted more people to experience what he thought was a necessary message. He got a hold of Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt, and a few others to remake the film almost shot for shot in English and set in America. This is the version I saw in theatres, and it’s still my preference when I’m in the mood to pop it on.
So there’s a family of three headed to their lakehouse for a vacation. Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) make up the Farber family. They see a few other neighbors, but the plot has them wind up being held hostage by two sadistic youths, possibly named Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt). Through a series of sick, twisted games the boys play for fun, the audience is drug through this horrific nightmare of an evening alongside the Farbers.
This is set up as a standard thriller, something you’d find in multiple other types of story. It’s vicious, mean, and cruel in a way that we don’t always feel in other films. Movies come with rules, put in place to more guarantee success and to placate audiences. You don’t kill children, you don’t kill pets unless you’ve earned it, and you must have a climactic moment of retribution for our heroes. Admit it, you love that these rules are in place. No parent wants to watch children die onscreen. I’ve had dogs all my life, and it still gets to me when they’re hurt onscreen. In films like Funny Games you almost HAVE to brutally kill one (if not both) of your villains because we experience a nearly orgasmic release when that’s executed.
Haneke looks the audience dead in the eye, scolds us for desiring to see the sick things we’re watching, and then throws the rules in our faces.
From that first knowing look, Pitt smugly acknowledging the audience by looking directly in the camera in a tight close-up, we’re told this is going to be different. He’s forcing Ann to look for the family dog, whom he has brutally murdered with a nine iron and hidden. They’re playing hot and cold, something often played silently in thrillers. People look for objects, for other people, it’s nothing uncommon, but the audience is usually in on the bit with those making the film while the character is at a loss. This moment, so small and unsettling, is the first instance where we’re informed that we are participating merely by wanting to see something like this. He does it over and over again and while we’re supposed to side with the Farbers…we kinda don’t. Paul looks directly in the camera later and asks us, the audience, if we’re on their side. He’s sincere but sly, making us question if we are, indeed, going to side with the family There is, of course, the fact that if we weren’t interested in watching them suffer then, welp, we wouldn’t be there.
And these two guys are charming, but that’s what makes them worse. Peter and Paul are polite, insisting on it as part of the evening’s proceedings. They’re intelligent, well-educated individuals, and each bit of their dialogue is oddly calming until it’s not. The brutality of their behavior comes from understanding that they’re in a film, and this allows them a nonchalance that we can never be sure is real or faked. When Georgie is killed we hear the struggle, but instead of seeing it we just watch Paul calmly making a sandwich while the murder loudly takes place. When Ann is finally killed they merely push her into the lake to drown while they sail on the Farber’s boat. It’s very purposeful that the two are having a discussion about being in a movie, being watched and understood and participating. The banality of their evil comes from being part of the audience as well as the perpetrators.
The absolute wildest moment in the film drives home how little control we have when we decide to participate. Peter is blasted by Ann with a shotgun, a giant hole appearing in his gut as he’s thrown up and into the way before dying on the floor. Paul is able to stop her from any further action, but he then frantically looks for the television remote. He pauses the film he is in, rewinds it, and is able to snatch the gun away before Ann can get it and kill Peter. That gunshot got applause at Cannes, the cathartic release of seeing one of these assholes blown away being exactly what the audience needed. Haneke then, after allowing us to have a moment of triumph, snatches it away with glee. That’s what would happen in one of our normal movies, but this isn’t that.
The lack of score definitely helps separate this from an average thriller. Music is something that helps us separate our reality from the fiction we watch, and removing that blurs the line between and makes us further feel like we are ONLY here for the brutality. There’s no stingers, no suspenseful music, just the loud and throbbing metal music that is only used three times in the film. Everything is audible and all of the suffering is the score to the film.
I love this movie. I know it isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great piece of commentary on not only the state of American film but the audiences that enjoy them. As someone that enjoys horror and genre exercises I got a lot of the same feelings from this that I got from The Cabin in the Woods (this isn’t nearly as funny as that film, no matter what the title suggests). And you know what, maybe that makes me a monster. That’s definitely what the film is implying, but maybe that’s okay.