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When German filmmaker Michael Haneke released the first version of Funny Games in 1997, he said of its potential audience: “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anyone who stays does.” Haneke’s statement was questionable and bloated with pretension back then, given how that piece of torture porn was nothing but nearly two hours of a senseless brutalization of a family, often unfolding in real time. Neither slasher nor thriller, the film wasn’t merely uncomfortable to watch, it was gut-twisting, infuriating, and vile. Whether Funny Games was “needed” a decade ago might have been debatable. But now that the German writer-director has created a shot-by-shot remake of the film for the benefit of America, one can unequivocally state that there’s no great societal void this unbelievably self-indulgent project is filling.
Besides replacing the original’s Austrian leads with mostly American actors, the new movie’s story is exactly the same. Married couple Ann and George (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and their young son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart), are just pulling into their waterfront vacation home when they notice their neighbors acting a little odd, accompanied by two young men they don’t recognize. Soon, one of the strangers is at the door, asking Ann if he may borrow some eggs for his hostess. Almost immediately, the scene is uneasy: Peter (Brady Corbet), dressed in tennis whites and gloves and sporting an emo-gone-wrong haircut you want to take shampoo and scissors to, is awkward and weird, and Ann is hardly friendly, especially bristling when Peter drops the eggs, expects her to give him more, and then knocks her cell phone into a sink full of water while apologizing. The latent hostility flares when the couple’s dog frightens Peter, who then again returns to Ann food-free, only this time with his identically attired friend Paul (Michael Pitt), who further imposes by asking to try out one of Tom’s golf clubs. He does—twice—but not on a ball. The couple try to throw the punks out, but before they can comprehend the danger they’re in, Peter and Paul have hobbled Tom and are threatening the family’s lives.
Funny Games offers no explanation for the intruders’ behavior. They walk in, torture and humiliate, then start the process anew. Paul is the leader, ordering the seemingly feeble-minded Peter around and verbally fucking with his victims, whether speaking to them like a hyperpolite country-club member or calling his partner “Peter” one second and “Tom” the next. Their big-picture “game” is a bet on whether the family will be alive or dead in 12 hours. In the meantime, they beat them and tie them up, force Ann to strip, ask that they fetch them food. When Ann wonders why they just don’t kill them, Peter responds: “You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.”
And how. Way before this point, you’ll likely be experiencing a strong reaction to Funny Games. But therein lies the conundrum: Is the film simply reprehensible, or is it art? Haneke obviously believes it’s the latter. He’s ostensibly condemning the violence in cinema and especially its eager consumers, going Clockwork Orange in a work that screams: You like brutality? Here it is—wallow in it. The story’s monsters even make you complicit, occasionally winking at the camera or asking for an opinion on what they should do next. At one point, Paul “rewinds” the action so he can defend against one of the family’s few advantageous moves—a gimmick that has something to do with messing with the appearance of reality, I suppose, but that ultimately amounts to a big so-what.
Funny Games does have a few pluses. Watts, Roth, and especially Gearhart are raw and excruciating to watch, particularly in an extended, slow-moving sequence in which the barely breathing couple try to gather themselves when the kids leave the house. And Pitt’s haunted, Stepford frat-boy looks (he’s best known for playing a Kurt Cobain clone in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days) make him terrifying. (Corbet, meanwhile, you just want to throttle.) And Haneke’s introduction and parting shot are brilliantly stylized, though much of their power is due to the discordant John Zorn-composed metal that plays over each. But the well-crafted bookmarks don’t elevate the odiousness that’s delivered in between into some high-minded lesson. Does anyone need to see Funny Games? No. It’s just trash.