Funny Games (United States/United Kingdom/France, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note: It is difficult to present a meaningful discussion of Funny Games without giving away major plot points. As a result, there are two reviews. This is the non-spoiler review, which limits spoilers to a bare minimum. For a more full discussion, click here for the spoiler review, but be warned - that review doesn't hide anything.

We've seen the set-up before: a nice middle-class family held captive by a pair of psychopaths. This time, however, things aren't going to turn out as Hollywood has primed us to expect. In his remake of his own 1997 feature, writer/director Michael Haneke uses the viewer's expectations against him or her. He makes a bold statement about how the indoctrination of mainstream thrillers has made violence and terror acceptable for entertainment by crafting a motion picture that is anything but entertaining. Funny Games is openly, intentionally unpleasant and is not for anyone in search of light fare. This is tough movie that sticks the knife in, twists it, then leaves it there. It's thought-provoking material but I suspect the audience is small that won't be repulsed by what's on screen.

In re-making Funny Games, Haneke has elected to use his previous Austrian feature as a direct template. The 2008 version of the film is almost a shot-by-shot recreation with identical dialogue (translated to English). There are minor differences: Naomi Watts spends a fair amount of time in her underwear, Tim Roth makes his character less demonstrative, and the location has been transplanted to Long Island. In general, however, those who have seen the 1997 feature may find this one to be little more than a curiosity. Haneke has used this approach because he is aware of the subtitle phobia that afflicts most American movie-goers and he wanted that barrier to be removed. The film will still have a limited audience but, at least in theory, it could be shown beyond the art house circuit. Also, by adhering rigorously to the original screenplay, Haneke avoids the misstep taken by George Sluizer, who prostituted his movie when re-making The Vanishing for a North American audience.

The movie opens with a happy middle-class family - mother Anna (Naomi Watts), father George (Tim Roth), and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) - on their way to a summer vacation home. Upon their arrival, they do typical things families do to get ready for vacation, including getting the boat in the water. Enter Peter (Brady Corbet), a neighbor who stops by to borrow a few eggs. Even though Peter is polite and deferential, there's something creepy about his manner. He is soon joined by Paul (Michael Pitt), who is just as polite but with an even more unsettling manner. It doesn't take long before the violent side of the newcomers is revealed as they deal George a serious leg injury and take the family captive. Their motivations are unclear but they have nothing to do with robbery or material gain.

One of Haneke's most controversial moves it to exploit audience expectations not only indirectly through a story that refuses to follow Hollywood conventions, but by some "fourth wall" breaking. On several occasions, Paul makes asides directly to the audience and there is one bizarre sequence in which a "rewind" is employed. This allows Haneke to show both way a scene could evolve - the crowd-pleaser and the non-crowd pleaser. He then explicitly rejects one. This is a case when the director's motivations become a little too obvious. It isn't necessary to overtly manipulate an audience like this.

The bleak, nihilistic style is what makes Funny Games so difficult to endure. While certain key events occur off-screen, the movie is unafraid of long, uncomfortable takes. There's one maddening scene in which the background drone of a NASCAR telecast becomes as irritating as a splinter under a fingernail. This sense of discomfort is what Haneke is striving for. He doesn't want us to relax for a moment, which is why there's an abrupt transition during the open credits from the soothing strains of Handel to the discordant sounds of metal. This leads to tension without the usual respite or comedic relief. The movie is mentally exhausting because there is not momentary letdown or chance to take a long breath. Even during some of the quieter scenes, the sense of impending doom is thick in the air.

The performances are well-suited to the material. Tim Roth allows his character to fade gently into the background to permit Naomi Watts to take center stage. She's very good as the loving wife and mother who is suddenly thrust into the midst of a life-and-death struggle. Michael Pitt is in his element here and is unforgettably unpleasant as Paul. Pitt, who can seem wooden in more normal roles, comes alive when given material like this. Brady Corbet is okay as his sidekick, but it's always clear that Paul is the more dangerous one. In short, all the actors do solid jobs playing the roles assigned to them in the usual home invasion thriller.

From a strictly cinematic standpoint, this is a valid motion picture that tells a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It pushes buttons, develops characters, and generates tension. As I indicated above, the only argument I have with Haneke's approach is when he chooses to address the audience directly. That is unnecessary and distracting. While I would stop short of calling Funny Games brilliant, I think it's forceful, unforgettable, and thought-provoking. In terms of the extremity of reaction it provokes, it reminds me of the equally disturbing Hard Candy. This isn't for everyone (and some viewers will feel ambushed), but those for whom it does work will find themselves challenged and stimulated. Funny Games is not entertainment but it is an experience.

Funny Games (United States/United Kingdom/France, 2008)

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Devon Gearhart, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1