THE BACK PAGES

Brutality in the eye of the beholder

Nothing is more violent in the movies than when the director plays with your head

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 24 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Brutality in the eye of the beholder

Nothing is more violent in the movies than when the director plays with your head

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 24 2008

Brutality in the eye of the beholder

THE BACK PAGES

film

Nothing is more violent in the movies than when the director plays with your head

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

How do you like your movie violence? Served straight up or sweetened with righteous sentiment? Should it be repulsive or tasteful? Offensive or gratifying? And when blood splatters across the screen, just how do you measure its artistic merit—by the elegance of its arc, or the moral force of its impact? Questions like these are more intriguing than ever in light of Bill C10—the controversial legislation that would retroactively deny tax credits to Canadian movies Ottawa finds “offensive”—a broad category that includes films deemed “excessively violent without an educational value.”

This week offers an opportunity to conduct a litmus test of screen brutality with the release of two American pictures from opposite ends of the art/trash spectrum. In the one corner, representing high art, is Funny Games U.S., Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Englishlanguage remake of his own provocative 1997 thriller about an affluent couple terrorized by two young psychopaths. In the other corner, talking trash, is Never Back Down, which fuses mixed martial arts with a teen-flick formula, as a high-school football hero and a venal bully fight like gladiators over a girl. By standards of contemporary horror, neither film is extremely graphic. But both stage games of blood lust, and dance ideological circles around the viewer’s right to relish the violence they portray.

With Funny Games U.S., Haneke has remade his original film virtually shot for shot. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth take on the roles of the bourgeois husband and wife who, with their son, become terrified hostages in their gated summer home. As the polite young predators who talk their way into the house, Michael Pitt (The Dreamers) and Brady Corbet (Thir-

teen) look even more creepily Aryan than the psychos in the German-language originaltwo pretty boys in tennis whites with schoolboy shocks of bright blond hair. Except for one trick scene designed to expose the viewer’s own blood lust, most of the violence in the film occurs off-screen, which makes it no less harrowing. Violating Hollywood’s narrative laws every step of the way, this is a plot in which the worst possible things happen.

We empathize with the victims’ tragedyeven more in the remake because Watts is so compelling. But the nihilist psychos, who engineer the action as sadistic comedy, seem closer to the filmmaker, who’s engaged in his own game of torture. They even wink at the camera. “I’m making the viewer an accomplice of the killer,” says Haneke, “and at the end I reproach him for this position. It’s a pleasure to show the viewer how easily he can be manipulated.”

Too easy, perhaps. David Cronenberg does something similar, but with more humanity and less condescension. In a world of self-referential media, deconstructing screen violence has become a cliché. The real power of Haneke’s film is more old-fashioned: the excruciating suspense of watching terror unfold uncomfortably close to home through the eyes of a brilliant actress. But Haneke is right: film violence should be offensive.

Never Back Down goes out of its way to make it palatable. Sean Farris, who resembles a young Tom Cruise, plays Jake, a star athlete from Iowa who moves with his family to Orlando, and is plunged into a perpetual March break of mansions, muscle cars and pool parties. Jake’s reputation precedes him, thanks to an Internet clip of him beating up a guy for goading him about his dad—who died behind the wheel after Jake let him drive drunk. Mention that and our mild-mannered hunk turns into a raging hulk—which is what happens when he’s lured to a party by a blond babe (Amber Heard) and drawn into a brawl with her boyfriend, who runs an underground fight club. Soundly beaten, Jake enlists a martial arts guru (Djimon Hounsou), who trains him on the condition that he never fights outside the gym. Fat chance.

The script is thick with platitudes about the evils of vengeance, and of YouTube turning street brawls into spectator sport. But no brawl, no movie. With a hypocritical head slam, Never Back Down lives up to its title. It’s all about the guilty pleasure of watching young hunks with abs of steel clash half-naked on hard pavement. Despite cheering girls in bikinis, this is a homoerotic spectacle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; the fights are superbly choreographed. What’s insulting is how the film glorifies violence while pretending not to—a one-two punch of educational “value” and violent excess that delivers a knockout blow to the brain. M