Two young men, dressed all in white and wearing white
gloves, arrive on the doorstep of a vacationing family. Their request is
simple. Their manner exceedingly polite, but strangely forceful. What follows
is one of the most excruciating series of events you’ll see on a theater screen
this year. The worst physical actions take place off screen, but the mental battery
demands endurance in a way that the Saw and Hostel films only pretend to. It
also rewards the experience with performances and craft that soar beyond genre.
But that’s only part of the story. I’ll just grab the
remote and rewind…
In 1997 Michael Haneke made the harrowing Funny Games.
Constructed similarly to movies like Last House on the Left, it wasn’t a horror
film but a method of questioning violence in cinema, creative intentions, the
entire bourgeoisie or all of the former, depending on your point of view. It
was also a gut-wrenching piece of performance and a masterfully understated
directorial effort with a blankly overt message.
If all the meta-discussion seems like too much overhead,
just know this: Funny Games is a much more frightening piece of film than all
the movies it seeks to criticize, making it finally the biggest contradiction
in Haneke’s oeuvre.
Now, for reasons that will probably never be apparent to
most of us, Haneke has crafted a shot for shot remake of his own film. Tim
Roth, Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbett and Devon Gearhart replace the
five original actors, but the sets, music, titles and script are functionally
identical. Nothing is neutered or changed. If you’ve seen the original you can probably
stop reading after the next paragraph.
Roth and Watts are phenomenal; Watts in particular
displays more of her penchant for on-screen masochism as she superbly portrays
a victim of torture. I slightly prefer original actors Arno Frisch and Frank
Giering over their American counterparts Pitt and Corbett, but only because
Frisch and Giering, to me, have a better carriage for the part. There’s no
deficiency in Pitt and Corbett’s performances. And the question between
Gearhart and original actor Stefan Clapczynski is a toss-up; both are quite
Now that we’re caught up…
George (Roth), Ann (Watts) and their son George Jr.
(Gearhart) arrive at their summer home. The setting is obviously wealthy,
probably the Hamptons. They briefly chat with their neighbors, who are in the
company of two well-dressed young men and behaving oddly. Soon the two young
men, Peter (Pitt) and Paul (Corbett), arrive at George and Ann’s house,
ostensibly to borrow some eggs.
The film strikes an uneasy tone from frame one. The family
drives towards their fate as the opening credits roll. In the car they play a
guessing game with opera CDs. But Haneke lays screamingly violent music (Naked
City’s ‘Bonehead’) over their happy laughter. There’s no hiding the movie’s
intentions, no limp move to create a semblance of normalcy.
Once Peter and Paul arrive on the doorstep, characters and audience alike begin to drown in tension. We’re like cats in a sack going over the
rail into a river. This celluloid has all the shock of exploitation executed
with the skill of one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers. The first two
acts are utterly horrific as the pair torment George and his family, seemingly
without reason. Simple psychological intimidation is their first weapon; they call each
other by different names (Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead) to
keep the family off balance and insist on polite conversation, even during and
after physical assaults.
Haneke watches everything with a cruelly dispassionate
eye. His camera rarely moves, and never blinks as George and Ann crumble. He
does not resort to screeching music or loud shock sound editing. In many ways
the movie is as mannered and refined as Peter and Paul. You feel as if Haneke
might wear white gloves while directing it. And while we’re not asked to watch
most of the movie’s many acts of violence, of which only one occurs on-screen, we
are asked whether we’d like to see more.
For Funny Games has more up its sleeve than outré shock
or horror shtick. Michael Haneke wants to know why we watch movies like this,
and he’s forthright in asking the question. So while, yes, this is arguably
art-house torture porn, it doesn’t exist simply to leech a few dollars away
from audiences that would never see Saw. But while it is inarguably a
high-minded movie, it is also awfully good at the basics of being a thriller. I
cannot imagine seeing a movie that chills and gets under my skin more swiftly
and with more determined, cunning power any time soon.
This is the place where I’m going to put the score, but
there are other things I’d like to talk about that could spoil the movie for some.
They’re on page two. Bear with me. I’ll be up in a few minutes.
9 out of 10
(Sorry for the delay on page two, folks. I’d finished the draft and was proofing it last night when the now-famous Atlanta tornado hit my house. We very luckily suffered almost no damage, but the draft is locked in my desktop PC and my neighborhood remains without power 26 hours later.)