Funny Games (2008) dir. Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet
“Funny Games” is a simple story of a husband, wife and their young boy who become victims of a home invasion by a pair of bourgeois psychopaths. Haneke skewers the slasher/horror film genre by avoiding all salacious aspects of these other films, instead building suspense to excruciating levels, before letting it out with shocking force. Putting aside the debate about whether his original 1997 film needed to be remade at all, Haneke has redelivered one of the most frightening film experiences you’ll ever see.
Having seen the original and knowing his other work, I was completely confident in Michael Haneke’s ability to deliver the goods. Michael Haneke is no sell-out, that’s for sure. Haneke has a sick mind, and as one of cinema's 'Enfant Terribles', my only curiosity is how far he would go. Haneke has created essentially a shot-for-shot remake of his original. The only difference being the different actors playing the roles. It’s still a sick and twisted experience with very little lost in the translation.
The film begins so innocently. Ann (Watts) and George (Roth) arrive at their serene country home for a weekend of relaxation. Ann hears a knock on her door and she meets Peter (Brady Corbet), a polite young man dressed in Wimbledon white, who kindly asks for some eggs. Ann obliges, but the simple request becomes an awkward and soon annoying lengthy game of words. Peter is then joined by Paul (Michael Pitt), Peter’s equally polite friend and accomplice. Ann senses some pushiness and she asks the pair to leave. When George arrives the argument turns violent, George is hit on the knee, handicapping him for the rest of the film.
The pair of psychopaths hold the family hostage for the evening. Violence is rarely threatened, as their insincere faux politeness clearly masks their hidden agenda of torture and humiliation. It will take Ann’s strength of will to find her way out of the situation and save her family.
Haneke is hyper aware of his audience and their expectations for such a film. And so “Funny Games” is as much about torturing the audience as the characters. Haneke can do shock and awe as good as anyone – remember the gruesome throat-slash in “Cache”? Or the room destruction scene in “Seventh Continent”? And there are some shock and awe moments in “Funny Games” – specifically the long take showing us the aftermath of one of the violent acts. But it’s Haneke’s skills in building terror and suspense and agonizing discomfort in the audience that is the marvel. Paul and Peter’s games are sick, but watch the effect of Haneke’s subtle shot selection and camerawork. He doesn’t waste a shot and cuts away only when necessary. The opening moments before Peter knocks on the door are made agonizing by Haneke’s placement of the camera. Haneke uses an old Polanski movie trick by shooting Watts against an open door in the background. The horror comes from the anticipation of the filling the space behind it.
Haneke breaks the fourth wall on numerous occasions. This is an old cinema trick as well, but Haneke maximizes its effect when he, at one crucial point, cruelly rewinds the film in front of our eyes and replays the scene again with less satisfying results for the characters and, thus, the audience. It’s Haneke at his cockiest, showing us his manipulation of the audience up front and in our faces.
“Funny Games U.S.” could never top his original film. Having familiar faces in the lead roles and the fact it's the second time around certainly lessens the impact. But at the very least he will also expose new audiences to one of the most disturbing and sick films ever made. I also get satisfaction knowing that some people, going by the title, will see the film by accident, thinking its a comedy. I'd watch it over and over again just to see people's reactions after leaving the theatre.