There are horror movies that are inadvertently hypocritical, indulging in prurience while shaking a finger at the audience. However, Funny Games is in something of a class by itself in how it treats the genre. Director/writer Michael Haneke has remade his 1997 Austrian/French-made film of the same name with an American setting and ostensibly American characters, albeit Naomi Watts is actually Australian and Tim Roth is English. It’s possible something has been lost in translation and even more possible that a message that might have seemed thoughtful a decade ago has transformed over time. It’s not that Haneke doesn’t have something on his mind and it’s not that he’s a bad filmmaker, it’s just that audience members who think they’re in for one type of experience will feel frustrated, while those who catch on early are likely to be irritated. It’s no fun being told you’re having a discussion and then not getting to have any input.
Watts and Roth, along with Devon Gearhart as their young son, play a happy family taking a vacation at their house by the lake. Two young men, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) talk their way onto the premises and proceed to terrorize and torture the group.
This is not Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes or even Hostel. While the young faux-polite men are both psychopathic and sociopathic, they’re also extremely polite. Moreover, where most films in this genre show a great deal of violence, nearly all blows, cuts and gunshots occur out of frame; we see blood spatter and legs, but very seldom anything more.
This seems to be part of filmmaker Haneke’s point – he’s going to make us examine what we want and expect out of this type of film. This comes complete with having Pitt’s character make asides to the audience and talking about story structure. Pitt and Corbet make an excellent pair of truly hateful preppies – you wind up wishing the beast from Cloverfield would put in an appearance. Watts, Roth and Gearhart all suffer convincingly, though there are some scenes where we wonder whether the characters are perhaps a little too conveniently non-inventive. Sure, we’d all panic in similar circumstances, but these people take it to extremes.
Certainly Funny Games doesn’t unfold the way other films with its basic premise do, but this is where it gets dicey. There’s a reason most people don’t make movies like this, and it’s not all about money. Doing something different entirely for the sake of doing something different obviously gets praise for originality, but there should be a destination in mind. The overall effect for those of us who have asked and answered questions about the particular appeal of this genre to our own satisfaction is of being sternly talked down to by someone who doesn’t actually feel any empathy for those who love what he’s critiquing. For those who haven’t felt any introspection about film-going choices, here’s an invitation to do some thinking, but the answers may not be those Haneke appears to suppose are correct.
In the end, Funny Games is well-made, intelligent and different. It just doesn’t elicit any emotions most people hope to experience at the movies.