"Funny Games," the new thriller from Austrian director Michael Haneke, is the most nihilistic, depraved, sadistic torture flick imaginable. It is a punishment to watch in every conceivable way, an enduring agony that plays like the cinematic equivalent of the rack: First it stretches, then pulls, then breaks you in slow, unmitigated, unrelenting cruelty. It is the type of movie that makes you want to yell expletives, to throw things at the screen in rage.
Hooray!, thinks Naomi Watts, who not only stars in but produced "Funny Games," a shot-for-shot remake of Haneke's 1997 foreign-language original.
"I think that people are going to have extreme reactions to it," she said. "That's certainly what happened to me when I saw the original. I felt angered but excited that I felt so much."
To stress the film's plot — psychopaths invade summer home, torture and kill Watts, her husband (Tim Roth) and their child — would be to miss the point of what amounts to a philosophical and intellectual exercise. In the same way, for instance, that Stephen Colbert brutally satirizes right-wing pundits by becoming even more right-wing, Haneke's film aims to raise a mirror to violence by becoming even more horrific. If he can push the envelope to an absurd degree, he seems to be saying, astute audiences will be more aware of their own rapidly growing desensitization. "Funny Games," then, isn't meant to be enjoyed so much as it's meant to be experienced.
"I think that Michael is trying to show violence in all of its ugliness and brutality so that we are more mindful as audience members and think more carefully as we cheer it on and crave it," Watts said.
But "Funny Games" goes even further. Haneke not only aims to show audiences the horror of modern-day cinematic violence, he aims to make them complicit in it as well. It's our fault movies are what they are, the movie declares — literally. At several points throughout the film, the perp played by Michael Pitt directly addresses the audience: "You're rooting for them," he says of Watts and child. In one section toward the end he gives a moment of catharsis and then dramatically takes it away, by rewinding the film.
It's a finger wag, a condemnation. You like "Die Hard" or "Rambo" or, worse yet, "Saw" or "Hostel"? Shame on you, this movie says — you need to feel bad about that.
"I think that is Michael's intention a little bit, yeah," Watts said. "He thinks violence is revolting and inexcusable, and that's why he depicts it in an authentic way. It's not cool, it's not sexy, it's not funny. It's grotesque. And we crave those movies and it's not pleasant.
"[In this movie] you have been through the experience and felt like you were a part of it," she continued. "So you acknowledge that we are guilty sometimes of going, 'This is cool when brains hit the wall. That's fun!' We're getting lost in that. But he's making you more conscious. He shines the light on you in saying, 'See, you want this? I'm going to give it to you.' But no, that's not this movie."
Whether or not the movie succeeds on that level depends in large part on whether or not it reaches the very audience that needs it most. But any audience member should ultimately be "prepared for the work," Watts said. "The ones who stay do get to do that work and maybe, hopefully, they go away with something. I felt it provoked a huge discussion.
"To me," she added, "that felt like a success when a movie is really impacting you in such a way."
If, that is, you can stomach it.
"Funny Games" opens Friday.
Check out everything we've got on "Funny Games."
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