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Misery
with Kathy Bates, James Caan
adapted from a Stephen King novel (1990)
(Collector's Edition DVD from Amazon)
. "Funny Games"

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's game is to play with the audience, as he did in Cache' in 2004. And, once again he scores a knockout with a gripping tale of sociopathic sadism and terror that turns the theatre into a silence chamber as you watch a grisly dance of lethal domination.

But, it's not altogether satisfying. While there's no doubt the film takes you through an experience that stiffens you in taut attention, Haneke injects himself into it like a demonic puppet master who wants to put his audience on a string. It's us he's playing mind games with just as much as with his generic couple and their young son who become chosen targets of white clad monsters with death on their minds.

Shortly after Ann, George, son Georgie (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Devon Gearhart) and the dog arrive at their lakefront vacation home, a blond young man dressed in tennis whites makes his presence known at the front door. One might question why he's wearing white gloves, but he quickly and amiably identifies himself as Peter, a houseguest of the neighbors, come to ask for four eggs. Ann, alone in the house preparing dinner, notes a certain peculiarity about the man but agreeably fulfills his request and asks him to go. He leaves the kitchen toward the door and there's a plopping sound. He dropped the eggs. She gives him another four, this time in a carton, and sees him out the door.

Assuming the incident over, the dog's barks and sudden silence arouses George and Georgie from their work on the sailboat. At the door, the family is mystified by Peter's return and the appearance of Paul, another blond haired, white clad man wearing white gloves. Paul looks around, makes a big point of admiring George's golf clubs. Taking one of them outside, he returns, golf club in hand, and demands another four eggs. It's clear by now that there's something going on and that the defenseless family could be in serious trouble.

Paul and Peter continue to provoke them and refuse to leave when George demands it. George strikes Paul on the face and receives a broken knee with the golf club. He's crippled and even more defenseless as the men set up the rules of the game they are now obliged to participate in and which will end by 9:40 the next morning with their deaths. Later they are given the choice between dying by knife and its agonies or by shotgun which will be quick. Ann, George and Georgie are facing two psychopathic monsters in their house.

As the monsters make things go from bad to far worse, it's clear that Haneke is having a grand old time making his audience cringe. Just to assure that he's as much a presence as any of his cast memebers, he had Paul turn toward the camera more than once to address the audience in challenging tones. You, too, could become their victim. See how easy it is for them?

But, the worst giveaway of what the auteur has in mind with his game occurs toward the climax which, though it would be far too much of a spoiler to reveal here, makes it even more evident that the film itself observes no fictional wall in Haneke's mock-casual intention to torture his victims in a bath of suspense.

In what may be the guiding rationale, there is this dialogue exchange:

Anna: Why don't you just kill us?
Peter: (smiling) You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment.

Of course, we're not amused, but this brings us to the fact that Haneke originally made this film 10 years ago in Austria. As a foreign film starring Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Muhe, he regretted that it didn't reach the primary audience he had in mind when he wrote it: the American one. In it, in fact, he references "Misery," the 1990 James Caan, Kathy Bates thriller from a Stephen King novel which was a probable springboard for his variation on the helplessness concept. So, when a British producer offered to finance a remake in the English language, Haneke agreed "under the condition that Naomi Watts star in the movie," thus assuring himself of his target audience (and giving her an executive producership). It'll be interesting to see if the remake fulfills his American dream.

The directing is sure and the acting is impeccable, which combines to make it all the more terrifying. One of Haneke's stylistic choices is to let certain scenes play out in whatever length of time it takes, even through long lapses in dialogue or any other sound. In one of the film's most gruesome examples, Watts is down to underwear, ankles taped together and hands tied behind her back, grief stricken almost beyond endurance. There are no off-camera helping hands or tricks as she hops, crawls and slithers across a room to try to phone for help and then get to her husband who lies crippled and in shock near the couch.

This is cruel, demented, brutal stuff and Watts delivers a performance that's entirely within the compass of her best, most draining emotional and physical work. It's not so much her Ann Darrow adventurousness and daring in "King Kong" as Cristina Peck of "21 Grams" with panic and the fear of death pushing this great actress into deep extremes.

Roth is exceptionally good, too, in what is an essentially supporting role. Pitt and Corbet are all their nightmarish tendencies are intended to be, acting out behind masks of politeness. Pitt is a feral cat playing with his helpless pray under the guise of civility, just to prolongue its desperation and misery before making a meal of it. But, it's not enough to say (as the press kit does) that this is merely a depiction of violence. It's more a case study of a certain kind of criminal, the sociopath, who can only imitate humanity from what he's observed and not from inate feelings. This kind of killer has none.

The problem is, a case study is an objective, didactic description not intended for entertaining or producing an emotional response. However horrific the feelings the film generates, it ends as a relentless, extended, cold exercise in extreme sadism. As a story, it's a gripping tale that peaks and loses its grip. It's manipulative and, past a certain point, the game becomes predictable and a wee bit boring... over before it's over... or is that the effect of exhaustion? Is it sociopathic? Well, a film can't be that, can it? -- but it certainly has no heart.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Naomi Watts, housewife; and Brady Corbet, surprise vistor.
A request that will break eggs.

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