Can a movie be gripping and repellent at the same time? In Funny Games, a mockingly sadistic and terrifying watch the middle class writhe like stuck pigs thriller, the director Michael Haneke puts his characters in a vise, and the audience too. I wouldn’t recommend Funny Games to a lot of people, yet I won’t dismiss it either. It’s been made with brutal fascination and skill, and a kind of sick-puppy suspense. In a wealthy secluded neighborhood, a family of three, staying at an airy summer cottage with perfectly polished white floorboards, are trapped in the house by a pair of preppy psychos who drop by and proceed to tease and torture them. The family, led by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth (with a son of about 10, played by Devon Gearhart), are nice, tasteful, attractive, and pampered; the monsters in tennis whites (and magician’s gloves) are like Leopold and Loeb reimagined by Abercrombie & Fitch. They bind, gag, maim, and terrorize, but never lose their bland smiles or impeccable manners. Their real game is power.
At first, one of them (Brady Corbet) comes over to borrow some eggs. He’s shy and polite, but on his way out he drops the eggs — an ”accident” — and then he won’t leave. Neither will the friend (Michael Pitt) who wanders in through the screen door to join him. Haneke works in cleanly organized shots, with a nagging real-time pace reminiscent of Kubrick. It’s a mode that prizes neatness and puts a spotlight on whatever’s dirtying up the frame — like, say, a wash of bloody brains in the corner. One of the ghoulish jokes of Funny Games is that the tormenters are such fresh-faced Aryan preppies they act as if it’s the victims who are being rude. They flaunt entitlement, provoking protest, then rage. Smashing the husband’s knee with a golf club (no, that’s not a spoiler — they’re just getting started), they turn torture into a rite of aristocratic privilege. They make the ultimate mockery of WASP manners by punishing the family for failing to live up to them.
Haneke, in films like Benny’s Video, The Piano Teacher, and Caché, has explored the fear and violence that, according to him, flow like poison behind the fake facades of bourgeois life. He’s a clever and sophisticated filmmaker; he’s also a self-important highbrow Euro pain freak. Funny Games is a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake of Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games, which was made in Austria and featured Ulrich Mühe (the Stasi spy in The Lives of Others). The new version is very nearly the same film — with the same scary red credits and screaming-horror heavy metal — but it’s perhaps even more shocking to see a glossy star like Naomi Watts trussed up in duct tape.
In an America that treats the Saw and Hostel sequels as been-there-dismembered-that reruns, Funny Games may sound like a movie a lot of teenagers would call a fun night at the megaplex. In Europe, however, it’s an art film. The new version wants to be both. If you enjoy it, Haneke implies, then on some level you’re complicit in what it’s showing you. By sitting there, you too are helping to turn violence into entertainment. (At several points, Pitt’s insinuating ringleader breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience.) Listening to this message, you may be tempted to call the movie’s bluff — to say, ”That’s not art! It’s just torture porn with fancy camera angles!” But Funny Games calls your bluff right back, since Haneke has designed it, knowingly, as a lofty exploitation film. Even the niggling implausibilities — couldn’t Watts try to retrieve Roth’s cell phone? Aren’t there more neighbors to run to? — create the B-movie logic of an enclosed hell. The acting is terrific. Pitt and Corbet are lissome creeps, Roth makes you shudder as he reminds you what pain really looks like, and Watts, in the most bravura sequence (a single 10-minute shot), rivets us with her war to survive.
A highly, if grotesquely, skilled exercise in Snuff Guignol, Funny Games doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has many antecedents, from the mocking cool sadism of A Clockwork Orange to the pressure-cooker intensity of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs to the house-party torture games of Roman Polanski’s 1966 classic, Cul-de-Sac. True, Haneke, like Gaspar Noé in Irreversible, works in a more extreme — and facile — way. Yet he taps into an extreme era; it’s hard to deny that he gives good squirm. I’ll defend Funny Games not as a statement (on that level, it’s a bit of a crock) but as an experience, a cruelly banal nightmare that held me with its primitive fear factor. B+