Funny Games is a controversial movie among my friends. Every single one to whom I have shown it has reviled it. Often quite forcefully. It’s something my roommates love to hate.
Which has always somewhat surprised me, because I like it a lot. But I’ve never felt like I’ve explained why to my satisfaction. So here is my attempt. Warning: There are spoilers ahead.
Funny Games is sort of a modern retelling of Job through an atheist’s eyes. It’s a portrait of despair in a cruel, unfair world.
There are two things I particularly like about Funny Games: It’s unremitting sense of despair and its criticism of popular cinema.
Make no mistake, Games is a depressing movie. The family is relentlessly physically and mentally tortured. They appear to do nothing wrong and everything right, but to no avail.
Watching them struggle with their hopeless plight, the expectation of their imminent death, and their love for one another is heart-wrenching. And while I don’t enjoy watching such pain, I do appreciate a movie that can provoke me so intensely; it’s a touch cathartic. It’s all the more effective for being such an uncommonly provoked emotion in cinema.
Games is notably aware of audience expectations for its movie format — Paul directly states that the audience would prefer the family to win the bet and drags out their deaths to match feature film length.
Peter and Paul even give them several hope-inspiring attempts to escape their clutches, but at the same time, the audience knows it is empty hope. Paul demonstrates his god-like ability to rewind the movie if the family successfully fights back.
So it becomes clear halfway through the movie that the family is not going to do well. Yet, the movie continues. And continues to mock the audience’s expectation that it will all come out alright. That the victims must be the victors.
And it appropriately ends with a notably callous anti-climax, purposely refuting earlier foreshadowing.
So in toying with audience expectations, refusing to make a concise happy package of the story, questioning cinema’s relationship with violence, and evoking strong emotions from its viewers, Games has earned my respect. Again, I’m not saying it’s an easy film to watch, but I think that in itself adds to its power, not detracts.