Two Serial Killers Walk Into a Home

Maui Time | March 10, 2008
Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke (pronounced 'hanakkuh') has remade his own controversial 1997 film, in which he effectively mocked American cinema's love for violence by pushing the limits of cinematic sado-masochism with an excruciating thriller that sticks to a standard formula, albeit with a different kind of ending. Because the original movie was in German, it was not widely seen by its target audience--namely the callused American audiences that Haneke believed could benefit from having their blood-thirsty asses handed to them like never before. I loathed the original film when I saw it at the 1997 San Francisco Film Festival, but have reconsidered it over the years and come around to appreciating its brutal satire, unrelenting misery and, surprisingly, its restraint. The new version is every bit as painful to watch, even if executive producer/actress Naomi Watts doesn't approach the soul-shattered performance of Susanne Lothar in the original. I think both versions of "Funny Games" equally represent the most indigestible and unsettling fictional film I've ever seen. To put it in the words of the director, "It's a film you come to if you need to see it. If you don't need this movie, you will walk out before it's over." Proceed at your own risk.

While the updated version isn't an exact shot-for-shot copy of the original, it sticks very close to it with a near-exact reconstruction of location and camera angles. Haneke makes his intentions clear in the opening scene; opera music plays in the SUV of a married couple with their adolescent son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) sitting contentedly in the back seat. They tow a boat, and the husband George (Tim Roth) tries to guess which Vivaldi song his wife Ann (Watts) has put in the CD player. It's a rich person's diversion that identifies the family operating smugly within a Bourgeoisie paradigm of status quo tranquillity. Suddenly, the most satanic wail of heavy metal anti-music interrupts the action like a tidal wave, care of John Zorn. Zorn's parody of heavy metal music boldly announces the bitter cold irony at hand. Garish red lettering announces "FUNNY GAMES" with screen credits rolling in a hue you might associate with the Hammer "Dracula" films of the '60s. We see the family's calm faces like bugs under a microscope, thanks to the alienating music that baptizes the audience into an upset state of being. Already, Haneke has begun to objectify the family that will be humiliated and tortured for the remainder of the movie. I know what you're thinking-"torture…puleeze." But remember what I said about the audience being made an accomplice. Before the film is over, you will feel dirty in a way you never have.

George pulls up in front of a large gated mansion, and Ann yells through the iron gate to her friends Fred and Eva who appear to be playing in their front yard with two white-clad teen boys standing nearby. Ann asks Fred to come help them put their boat in the water. Fred's response is delayed. What could be bothering their rich friends inside the comfort of their luxurious compound? We are them, but they are the other.

Haneke's compositions are formal in way similar to filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polanski. You can sense the rigor with which every long and medium shot is executed. It is a frigid distance, drained of humor. Inside the lake house, the camera soaks up the interior elements, inviting the audience to take inventory of the white-walled home. Automatic electric gate? Check. Cozy living room and entryway? Check. Golf clubs, bicycle, and dog? Check.

Ann stocks the fridge while George greets a stiffly mannered Fred with his teenaged friend Paul (Michael Pitt) dressed in white shorts, shirt and gloves--like some kind of germ-fearing tennis player. Alone in the house, Ann is interrupted by Paul's similarly dressed friend Peter (Brady Corbet - "Mysterious Skin") asking for four eggs for the neighbor. Ann accommodates but Peter drops the eggs and asks for more, ever so politely. On the surface, Peter and Paul are polite to a fault. But their actions belie an illogical pretense beyond their smirking yet respectful words.

Paul sends Ann on a search for the newly missing family dog, and turns directly to the camera and shares a wink with the audience. It's the first of several opportunities Haneke takes to check in with the audience from the bad guy's point of view. The director lets the viewer in on the manipulation he is committing via a standard 'thriller' plotline. He wants you to know, question, and accept that you are a product of the way you have learned a certain taste for a brand of violence that can look completely differently if the filmmaker so intends. "Funny Games" is a one of a kind movie that I would not advise anyone to see unless they understand that the highest compliment they could pay the filmmaker would be to walk out on the film. One thing's for sure; if you see "Funny Games," you will never forget it.

Rated R, 111 mins. (A)

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