With the door perhaps beginning to shut on the brief era of torture porn--low-budget bloodspatterers such as Saw and Hostel, released
by arty studios for enormous profits--it is perhaps unsurprising that
Warner Independent Pictures (distributor of such lofty fare as Paradise Now, In the Valley of Elah, and Good Night and Good Luck) had the bright idea of remaking Austrian director Michael Haneke's Funny Games.
It's really the best of all worlds: a brutal psycho flick in which two
preppy killers systematically imprison, torment, and murder an innocent
family--that is, the kind of film you can market to a far broader
audience than, say, Darfur Now--but one Warner doesn't have to
feel ashamed about. After all, this is no indie gorefest thrown together
by irony-soaked kids, but rather an honest-to-goodness,
Haneke is an extremely gifted filmmaker, as his previous movie, the fascinating but ultimately frustrating Caché, aptly demonstrated. And Funny Games, a shot-for-shot remake of his own 1997 German-language original, is not only a meticulously well-crafted film, but one that has something to say about violence and viewership, the audience's complicity in the creation of cinema.
It is also, however, an obscenity--a characterization I'm not at all sure Haneke himself would dispute. Funny Games is hardly the first violent, sadistic film to present itself as a critique of violence and sadism in film: Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (which Haneke himself has derided) is the most obvious example, but one can find variations on the theme in the work of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Peckinpah, De Palma, Tarantino, and any number of others. Yet Haneke's film is, by design, perhaps the most repellent.
The story, in brief, is that upscale couple Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth), along with their eight-year-old son Georgie (Devon Gearheart) and their golden retriever Lucky, drive out to their beautiful waterside vacation house for a brief family getaway. They are soon visited by two young men in immaculate golf whites and gloves, who introduce themselves as Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett). The boys initially ask to borrow some eggs, but when the eggs are broken, seemingly by accident, their impositions grow more aggressive. Before long, the family is bound, beaten, and humiliated, and Paul and Peter make a "bet" that they will all be dead by the next morning.
It is not an idle bet, and the rest of the film follows a pattern of hope dangled--an escape to the neighbors' house? a cell phone call to 911?--and then brutally withdrawn. The encroach of evil is slow and methodical, but it will not be denied. To describe the film as an unpleasant viewing experience would be an indictable understatement, and I strongly recommend that anyone not being paid for the chore find a more enjoyable way to pass two hours, such as dental surgery or completing tax returns. (Warning: Minor spoilers follow, but this is a film I'd advise attending with eyes wide open, if at all.)
Haneke is at pains to remind us that Funny Games is not merely an exercise in sadistic manipulation, but rather a commentary on the ways we are inevitably manipulated by the medium of film. Yet the steps Haneke takes to distinguish his film from the violent trash he claims to be critiquing are, like the message itself, somewhat tired and conventional. Paul occasionally breaks the fourth wall to toss an aside directly to the audience, for instance--an admission of cinematic artifice that hasn't been fresh for decades. An even hokier gimmick is unveiled when Ann shoots Peter with a shotgun--is there hope of escape after all?--and Paul calmly locates a remote, rewinds the film itself to a moment before the shooting, and takes the gun from Ann before she can use it.
Haneke's most significant departure from genre standards is his refusal to offer the more explicit forms of titillation in which horror directors typically truck. When Paul and Peter force Ann to strip for their amusement, for instance, we see her only from the neck up. And, charitably, the film's most horrific acts of violence all occur off-screen. But I'm not sure this reticence represents quite the moral and philosophical clean break that Haneke imagines it to. No, we don't have to witness a helpless innocent having his head blown off. But we do spend an interminable scene in the presence of his corpse, as the red mush that was once inside his cranium drips down the wall. And while Haneke is coy regarding Ann's brief nudity, he has no qualms about filming her in her underwear for the better part of an hour.