It's been quite a season for movies that put the audience through a traumatizing wringer of violence and suspense. No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Eastern Promises, and Sweeney Todd were all grim and bloody spectacles that took their viewers to some pretty dark places. But I can't think of a movie last year that I walked out of literally shaking with dread (as in, when I tried to use an ATM machine by the theater, my hands could barely operate the touch screen). If there were an Oscar for most soul-grinding cinematic experience, Funny Games (Warner Independent Pictures) would have the 2008 award tied up already. But does that make it a good movie?
Funny Games is something far weirder than a remake of writer/director Michael Haneke's 1997 Austrian film of the same title. It's an identical shot-for-shot copy, with the same framing and blocking, most of the same dialogue, and even many of the same sets and props. According to Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Caché), he always intended the movie for an American audience, so when the Austrian version failed to catch on here (what, no one flocked to see a subtitled, horrifically violent Brechtian critique of mass entertainment?), he accepted an offer to remake it as long as Naomi Watts could play the lead role. The precision with which Haneke reproduces even nonessential details of the original (did the kitchen clock really have to sit at the exact same angle on the shelf?) suggests that he may be as much of a control freak as this movie's white-gloved villains. But it's true that the movie makes more sense on American screens, since the director's explicit project is to lure us Yankee suckers into a Hollywood thriller, then duct-tape our ankles together and trap us in hell.
Funny Games begins as a standard-issue (if curiously slow-paced) home-invasion movie, in which a bourgeois family is menaced by sadistic captors in the grand tradition stretching from Cape Fear to Panic Room. The well-off Farbers—George (Tim Roth), Ann (Watts), their son, Georgie (a brave young actor named Devon Gearhart, who I seriously hope had a counselor on-set), and their golden retriever, Lucky—are first seen driving to their summer house in what looks like the Hamptons. Towing their just-renovated boat behind them, they peaceably listen to a Handel aria. When the classical music is abruptly replaced by a shrieking death-metal song as the movie's title splashes onto the screen in bright red type, you start to get the point. Once the Farbers reach that tasteful, isolated mansion, their middle-class complacency will be burst asunder by evil forces, and Lucky's name will prove ironic (or maybe not; compared with what his masters go through, the pooch gets off easy).
What you don't foresee (unless you've already watched the 1997 version, in which case I can't imagine subjecting yourself to a rerun) is how the story that unfolds will deliberately frustrate, ignore, and mock your expectations. Before they've even unpacked, the Farbers are visited by two preppy young men in tennis whites, Paul and Peter (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett.) These boys' exquisitely polite yet strangely malevolent request to borrow some eggs for a neighbor soon escalates into a full-blown hostage situation, with the Leopold and Loeb-like tormentors betting their captives that they won't live to see morning.
About the movie's content, I'll say no more than that (not so much to protect you from spoilers as to protect myself from remembering the thing). But its form is another matter (and this is an extremely formal movie, in both senses of the word). On at least three occasions, Pitt's character, the smarter and more ruthless of the two torturers, breaks the fourth wall by turning to address the camera. "You're on their side, aren't you?" he asks at one point, toying with our instinct to identify with the victim just as he's toying with the Farber family's will to survive. Soon after, he needles us for expecting a "real ending" with "plausible plot development." And just after the movie's one truly cathartic moment, Paul picks up the TV remote and rewinds … Funny Games, the movie we're watching and he himself is in, just far enough back to deprive of us that catharsis and redo the ending the way he wants it.
Corbet's Peter, the lumpier beta male of the pair, never pulls one of these meta-narrative tricks, but he does his share of hammering home the same theme, repeatedly reminding Watts' Ann (who's bound, gagged, and forced to strip over the course of the film) that "you can't forget the importance of entertainment." So, fine, we're sick fucks for watching this thing to the end—but what about Michael Haneke, the guy who made it twice? The movie's attempt to combine cool Brechtian remove with the highly realistic depiction of physical and psychological torture ultimately backfires on its auteur: The direct-address interludes come off as fatuous and hectoring, while our identification with the suffering family feels powerful and necessary. Haneke's been quoted as saying he wants his movies to make people think, but Funny Games is 110 minutes of pure reptile-brain jolts (fear, mostly), with a couple of meta-narrative finger wags thrown in.
It would be easy to dismiss Funny Games as a sadistic, self-important piece of garbage were it not for the superb artistry that went into its construction. Haneke is a master at re-creating the familiar rhythms of suspense cinema, while replacing Hitchcockian playfulness with a ponderous nihilism. Darius Khondji's light-flooded cinematography manages to make a broken egg look as frightening as a smashed head (which, in fact, the egg stands in for; most of the worst violence in the film happens offscreen). The actors all deserve medals just for showing up. Naomi Watts, who seems to prefer roles that push her to the limits of degradation, reaches new heights (or depths) as a sheltered housewife who's slowly reduced to little more than a creature with a numbed-out will to survive. Tim Roth does what he can with his passive punching bag of a role as her incapacitated husband (though he does get the film's one laugh when he glumly blow-dries a wet cell phone in an attempt to call the cops). And rarely have I hated a movie villain like I loathed the preening, entitled douchebag that Michael Pitt plays in this movie. I distracted myself from the pain of watching the Farbers suffer by imagining novel ways to reduce his cherubic face to mincemeat.
Remember the famous horror-movie tag line that encouraged viewers to keep telling themselves "It's only a movie"? Funny Games takes care of that for you, reminding the viewer at every juncture that what we're watching is an artificial construct and that really, we're kind of jerks for even caring how it ends. Many American viewers may take Haneke at his word and walk out midway through this grueling ethics exam of a movie. But much as I may resent the facile polemics of Haneke's shame-the-viewer project, I have to respect the way that he nailed me, trembling, to my seat.