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Dustin Putman

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Funny Games  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Michael Haneke
Cast: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Boyd Gaines, Robert LuPone, Linda Moran
2008 – 112 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, terror and some language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 4, 2008.
Gus Van Sant's underrated 1998 remake of "Psycho" was criticized for being a virtually shot-for-shot copy of the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock original, but, even amidst the startling similarities, Van Sant took it upon himself to add his own personal flourishes. That picture's detractors hadn't seen anything yet. "Funny Games," a U.S. redux of German-born writer-director Michael Haneke's 1997 film of the same name, really, truly is a near duplication, the only differences being a change in cast, a change in spoken language, and a few very minor tweaks to the dialogue. Having the experience of watching both films for the first time only a few days apart is uncanny, and the only apparent reason for this remake's existence is to introduce the story to a wider American audience who probably don't even know the first one exists. If that's what it takes to get people to see it, then so be it. Both films stand amazingly on their own, and neither one loses its raw, unseemly power for having seen the other.

The premise is simple enough to describe, but doesn't quite do justice to its intentionally crushing unpleasantness. A happy-go-lucky family—father George (Tim Roth), mother Anna (Naomi Watts) and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart)—have no sooner settled into their lakeside vacation home when they are paid a visit by two young men, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet). Their initial well-mannered politeness gradually takes a foreboding turn when they refuse to leave. Before long, the family finds themselves held hostage, forced into a series of malicious games after being guaranteed that none of them will be alive in twelve hours' time.

"Funny Games" is tough to take, and will not be palatable for audience members comfortable with only being force-fed conventional, studio-bred horror movie fodder. With almost no onscreen violence, writer-director Michael Haneke throttles the viewer over the head, toying and daring them to withstand the kind of deep psychological torture and emotional devastation rarely seen before in cinema. Claustrophobic even when the action intermittently moves to exterior locations, the camera stays on the five central characters, refusing to cut away or release the tension building up throughout. One particular shot—the centerpiece of the film—is approximately ten minutes long; it immediately follows the grisly (again, off-screen) murder of one of the characters, and then leaves the other two characters alone to try to come to grips with what has unthinkably occurred while also attempting to get out of the situation they are in. The result is equal parts disturbing and breathtaking in its depiction of tragedy and, for a time, the actors cease to exist as the realness of their roles take over.

The very title is almost gleeful in its irony; humor is nonexistent throughout, and the games played on the family are far from funny. What is not immediately known is that Haneke also has another trick up his sleeve, playing a game all along with the viewers who stay put in their seats, interested in how everything is going to turn out. When Paul breaks the fourth wall the first time, looking squarely in the camera and smiling, the effect is at once disconcerting and thoroughly unsettling. Is he looking at me? the viewer asks him or herself, and the answer, which slowly becomes apparent, is yes. Paul—or is it Haneke in disguise?—is literally daring the people watching the movie to stay put. Thus, we stop being mere spectators and become willing accomplices in the horrific crimes being committed on this innocent family. Even more fascinating is that Paul and Peter do not so much as raise their voices throughout. Were they not psychopaths who happen to be combing secluded homes in the area and systematically killing the residents, they would be perfectly amiable fellows. That there is a monster hiding under each of their calm, cheerful veneers is what is so scary about them.

Time and again, George, Anna and Georgie are faced with choices in their bid to escape. In retrospect, we realize that if only they had done something differently, they might have been able to get away. These moments, however, are plausible in the direction they go, and not merely an example of typical slasher movie characters doing dumb things. George, Anna and Georgie are written smartly, but even intelligence, they come to find, isn't going to do them any favors against their ceaseless assailants. Director Haneke's strongest attribute is in his ability to create distinct apprehension in subtle ways—through long, static shots and through dialogue-driven interactions between characters that are just off-center enough to recognize something isn't right. There are no jump scares or sudden bursts of gore or mayhem, and it is in this slow-burn pacing and restrained tone that eventually gets under one's skin.

Naomi Watts (2007's "Eastern Promises"), Tim Roth (2005's "Dark Water") and Devon Gearhart (2005's "Little Men") are put through the veritable wringer as Anna, George and Georgie. Their performances, demanding of them to constantly be in states of panic, terror and despair, are powerhouses. Gearhart stands out in that he is much more memorable and naturalistic than the child actor in the original film, while Watts and Roth are equally superb in their portrayal of a married couple whose safe expectations of the world are malevolently pulled out from under them. As the calculating Paul and Peter, Michael Pitt (2005's "Last Days") and Brady Corbet (2005's "Mysterious Skin") are icily terrific in their remorseless homicidal tendencies.

Difficult to like and yet impossible to deny, "Funny Games" is a coldly efficient, spectacularly acted and unremittingly bleak thriller. The audience does not "enjoy" what they see, but that's the point—even though the film is an endurance test, we refuse to turn away from the emotional and physical carnage being laid out before us. It's all just another part of Haneke's barbarous games, and we're the ones left holding the knife.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman