Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is virtually a shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian film of the same name. From its hypnotic opening sequence to its jarring conclusion, Haneke’s newer version recycles nearly bit of music, lighting technique, shooting angle, and edit of his notorious ten year old home invasion thriller in an experiment of self-mimicry challenged only by the change of actors and venue.
This time, the action takes place on a lake in upstate anywhere USA, where rich families venture in from the suburban jungle to summer, sail, and swim. It’s like the Hamptons, but with nicer real estate. Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and George Jr. (Devon Gearhart) are just such a family, and, while en route to their summer home, a chance visit with neighboring friends puts them in the sites of Paul and Peter (Michael Pitt and Brody Corbett) – two cherubic looking teenagers with a twisted sense of fun. Paul and Peter (or Tom and Jerry or whatever they feel like calling themselves at any given moment) pose as family friends of Ann and George’s neighbors, but, when Peter comes by to borrow some eggs, a confrontation between the teenagers and George Sr. results in the latter getting his leg broken by the swift stroke of a 9 iron. Soon Paul is orchestrating “games” for him and Peter’s amusement. They play games like “Cat in a Bag”, in which George Jr.’s nearly suffocated by a pillowcase while Paul and Peter force Ann to disrobe down to her underwear. There’s also the timeless classic, “Repeat this Prayer” in which if Ann can repeat a short prayer verbatim, she wins the chance to decide which of them dies first, and whether said death be by gunshot wound or stabbing. Paul and Peter do all of this with whimsical smiles and speak with the soft, genial tones of choirboys, while Ann, George, and George Jr. stare on in tearful disbelief.
Oh, but the night is young, and there are so many games to play.
When I first saw Haneke’s Austrian original several years back, I was pretty well shaken by the almost quiet ferocity of the film. As horrific as it is, however, Funny Games was a beautifully shot film, and that, of course, carries over to this meticulously recreated remake. It’s a rare thing that a “horror” film be a thing of such pure elegance, but that’s exactly what Haneke manages here, and Watts, Roth, Pitt, and Corbett are even more riveting in their roles than the original film’s fantastic cast. Watts, in particular, puts forth what I think is the best performance of her career – I’m talking Oscar-worthy stuff, here – but I somehow doubt many Academy voters will be seeing this film, and that’s a downright shame. Yes, it’s brutal, random, and, perhaps (seeing as how this is a shot-for-shot remake of an already maligned film) maybe all a bit pointless, but it’s also an expertly made, thought provoking, and truly disturbing piece of cinema in which every actor involved leaves it all out there for the audience to see in unflinching detail. Critics can call this one a horror movie all they want, but genre conventions be damned – this is an actor’s movie, every bit the character-centric showpiece as countless turgid talking head flicks that have undeservedly garnered praise before this. Funny Games shouldn’t be overlooked because it may turn some stomachs; it should be rewarded for the fantastic performances that make us care enough about these characters to be sickened in the first place. This isn’t torture porn, or a push-your-buttons thriller, but rather a sly, inventive, witty, and – yes – disquieting meditation on our own desensitization to violence through the media, told through the media, with a wink/nudge breakdown of the cinematic “fourth wall” that offers us just enough false hope before sweeping the rug out from under us, just as it does Paul and Peter’s hapless victims.
The original Funny Games is a great film in its own right, but, thanks to even stronger performances from an impressive roster of actors, Haneke’s remake is absolutely fantastic, vital, and more disturbing than ever.