As they approach their lakeside retreat, Ann (Naomi Watts, "The Painted Veil," "Eastern Promises") and George (Tim Roth, "Pulp Fiction," "Youth Without Youth") note their neighbors acting oddly and two unfamiliar young men in tennis whites. George asks Fred (Boyd Gaines, "I'm Not Rappaport") to help him get his boat in the water and Fred arrives with Paul (Michael Pitt, "The Dreamers," "Last Days"). Ann is surprised to find Peter (Brady Corbet, "Thirteen," "Mysterious Skin") at her door asking to borrow eggs. The overly polite young men wearing white gloves unnerve Ann and her instincts prove correct. Paul and Peter wish to play some "Funny Games."
Writer/director Michael Haneke ("Caché") has remade his 1997 Austrian Cannes competitor shot for shot for the American audience he says his film was always aimed at. That statement should give one pause, as this intensely disturbing film is intended as an indictment of violence as entertainment (among other things), yet the American audience courted here is more than likely to perceive the film as a straight-ahead horror movie rather than a philosophical argument. Seeking the film's meaning is likely to give one a headache of contradictions.
The film begins with an overhead shot of the family SUV trailing a sailboat along a two-lane road. It's unseen driver and front seat passenger, obviously a couple, are playing a game of 'guess the classical music piece.' Blood red block titles come up over the now seen passengers, including a young boy, Georgie (Devon Gearhart, "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius"), in the back seat with a a Golden Retriever. The music abruptly shifts to piercing and aggressive heavy metal. Our protagonists are being marked as victims from the get-go.
This family vacations in a large, gated Colonial lakeside home. Ann wears the kind of simple looking cotton dress that costs hundreds of dollars. The kitchen is well equipped, its owner fretting that she has defrosted 'too much steak.' There is no reason not to think well of these people, but clearly their lifestyle would be envied by many.
Inside the house, Georgie seems alarmed and tells his mom there is someone at the door. It turns out to be Peter. His white gloves are strikingly odd (the entire pure white getup and Nazi youth haircut immediately calls "A Clockwork Orange" to mind), yet go unmentioned (far later a more direct neighbor, Betsy (Siobhan Fallon Hogan, "Holes," "Dogville"), who pulls up at dock will ask Paul if he is cold). There is something provocative about this young man, especially when (off camera) he fumbles the 4 eggs he has just borrowed, then continues to hang around. Later Peter appears as well and becomes enraptured by the brand of golf clubs propped up in the hall and begs to be allowed to try one. Cut to dad and Georgie back at the sailboat alarmed at the sudden stop of their dog's barking (in fact, the absence of sound is significant in this film, which has little to no ambient noise).
Haneke certainly keeps piling on a sense of dread. The certainty of the demise of the family pet is a slap in the face, kids and animals being sacrosanct from movie violence, and things, of course, only continue to go downhill. We are given several false starts of hope, escapes easily made always to backfire. Paul, who verbally torments his less intelligent cohort as well as torturing the family, begins to address the audience, courting our collusion while admitting we are probably on the other side. When asked the obvious 'Why's?' he presents several scenarios, then wipes each away. When presented with the first truly effective, 'heroic' act, Paul takes us out of the film in a very unique way to reestablish control - you weren't getting away that easily, were you?
Although Haneke's 10 year later remake is identical to the first, the production is crisper and the cast more well known (Ulrich Mühe, the Stasi agent in "The Lives of Others" starred as Georg in the 1997 version). There will also be different interpretation of its events given a decade's history and the targeted audiences - 1997's killers could be viewed as Nietzsche worshipping anti-Bourgeois while 2008's look more like a terrorist threat. It should be noted that the perpetrators bring no weapons to their home invasions, instead turning their victims's own material wealth against them.
Michael Pitt is terrific as the sadistic Paul, particularly adroit weaving in and out of the film's reality, and Brady Corbet projects a menacing slowness that invites frustration and violence. As in the first film, executive producer Watts gives Ann a core of strength amidst the indescribable while Roth makes George's emasculation almost noble. Young Devon Gearhart conveys fear realistically.
So, if it is human to slow down at an accident scene, does that make it acceptable to admire Haneke's film? It certainly is a masterwork of manipulation and he plays out the worst of his violence off screen (undercutting his own intent, though, no?). Still, "Funny Games" is not for the faint-hearted. The filmmaker's objective may be maddeningly muddy, but his work is well crafted.
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