Hating Michael Haneke's Funny Games would be altogether too easy, because that's exactly what the movie wants you to do. Deliberately despicable, it's an outrageous provocation aiming for obscenity. That it is also a model of impeccable craftsmanship makes it perhaps even more bothersome. An art-punk lecture gone weirdly wrong, the film works in ways the director presumably never intended. But the nasty thing works all the same.
A shot-for-shot, almost word-for-word English-language remake of Haneke's 1997 Austrian film of the same name, Funny Games stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth (Susanne Lothar and The Lives of Others' Ulrich Muhe star in the original) as a cheerful, wealthy couple headed to their lush vacation home for a relaxing weekend, their chipper young son (here played by Devon Gearhart) in tow.
Just how bourgeois are these folks? During the car trip they play "Name That Tune" with classical music.
Trouble arrives with an unexpected house call from two somewhat distressingly polite young men calling themselves Peter and Paul, both dressed in white and inexplicably wearing gloves. Paul (Michael Pitt) is a smooth operator, always ready with a compliment but prone to holding a gaze for just a beat or two too long. Peter (Brady Corbet) is the chunkier, more awkward of the two. His clumsy attempt to borrow a few eggs from Watts' snooty housefrau turns into a small symphony of disquiet and insinuation.
She should have just given him the goddamn eggs, because before long Peter and Paul--now calling themselves Tom and Jerry, later Beavis and Butt-Head--have our happy family bound, beaten and subjected to an endless night of psychological torture and unspeakable cruelty. The film wallows mercilessly in their helplessness, dragging out the whimpering and despair for epic fixed-camera long-takes that sometimes run up to 10 minutes. Complicating matters is that Pitt keeps addressing the camera with a smirk, looking the audience dead in the eye and asking questions like: "You're rooting for them, aren't you? Do you think they'll make it?"
Haneke has said in interviews that he made the original Funny Games as a reaction to his revulsion at Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, and sometimes even chastises viewers who make it all the way to the end without having the good sense to leave the theater. The movie has been designed to punish the audience for what Haneke perceives is our complicity in the fetishization of movie violence.
But why should the filmmaker consider himself above this particular fray? Genuinely complex works of art like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, or even that loony Stone flick Haneke despises, cast just as many questions of culpability upon the authors behind the imagery. Funny Games feels shallow and a bit disingenuous because it's scolding us from a place of scholarly ascetic reserve.
But what makes both versions of Funny Games impossible to dismiss is that Haneke, despite the superficiality of his ideas, is such a prodigiously gifted craftsman. Impeccably composed and overflowing with a sickening, pervasive dread, the movie is a flawlessly engineered torture device. Keeping the violence entirely off-screen, Funny Games denies any emotional or kinetic release. Beatings, shootings and stabbings always remain just an inch or two to the left of the frame, and the lack of any musical score only aggravates the movie's sense of stark unnerving claustrophobia.
The Hitchcockian language of thrillers takes a vicious pasting, laborious foreshadowing becoming merely a setup for sick jokes. There's normally a rule of thumb in pictures like this one: When you see a sharp knife in the first act, it's going to be used in the third. But then you remember, that's exactly what Haneke wants you to think.
Ironically enough, the original Funny Games turned into the very kind of movie Haneke was attempting to criticize, blossoming into an underground cult fave for sensation-junkies who dig their cinema on the extreme side. (Call this the Clockwork Orange effect.)
So will this American remake somehow jolt multiplex audiences into questioning their reaction to depictions of violence in cinema, as the director intended? Doubtful, but I bet come Halloween we'll see a lot of kids wearing white gloves and carrying golf clubs, as Peter and Paul may become the new costume of choice for folks who used to dress as Alex and his droogs.