Michael Haneke has been sending shock waves through the international cinematic community for years. His films are confrontational, unconventional, and frequently controversial. Of all the subjects he's approached in his career, perhaps no one film in his catalog is more polarizing than his 1997 shocker Funny Games. And with his decision to remake the film shot-for-shot in 2007, a decade after the original, Haneke ensured that the film would split audiences twice over.
A family goes to their summer home, only to find their neighbors are hosting a pair of young boys. One of them, Peter (Brady Corbet), stops by and asks the mother, Ann (Naomi Watts) for some eggs. The other, Paul (Michael Pitt), asks to try out some of the dad's, George (Tim Roth), golf clubs. When Ann complains about their behavior, Paul uses a golf club to break George's leg. From there, the whole family, including young Georgie (Devon Gearhart), is shepherded into the living room. There, Peter and Paul explain that they are going to play a series of games. The objective? For the family, it's to survive the night. For Peter and Paul, it's to kill the family.
As you can imagine, the subject matter is already volatile enough. The majority of the film is the family being sadistically tortured by the two men, who change their names and their history as it suits them (their names range from Peter and Paul to Tom and Jerry, etc.). The games are either embarrassing, or physically harmful, or both. To make things even more uncomfortable, Haneke shoots the film in a cold, detached style, and almost all of the violence is off screen. What does this mean? It means the mind is filling in all the blanks, aided by sound effects, to come up with sights far worse than what Haneke could actually put on screen.
Audience participation is key to the success of Funny Games. And by "audience participation," I don't mean that people should be shouting out lines a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Throughout the film, Haneke forces the audience to evaluate what they're seeing (and not seeing) on the screen. In the hands of a less skilled filmmaker, Funny Games surely would have been just another Saw retread, meant to titillate jaded teens. Instead, Haneke forces a dissection of how audiences respond to cinematic conventions and stimuli. It's intense and fearless, but not to everyone's taste.
The film is propped up by a series of deeply felt performances. Naomi Watts cared so much about making this movie that she helped get it produced. She and Tim Roth support each other, especially in a particular sequence where Peter and Paul leave the couple for a while. Michael Pitt is also in top form. Pitt is known for choosing difficult roles, especially in films like The Dreamers and Bully, but Funny Games has him at his best. He's cool and controlled. It's as if the part was tailor made for him, and even if you don't like the film itself, you have to admire the skill that goes into the performances.
Funny Games did divide critics and audiences, both in its original form and the remake. Many found it to be torture porn, reveling in the pain that it heaped on its characters. Others saw it as a bold statement, a message from a filmmaker to an audience growing increasingly desensitized and jaded. It's not a morality tale, and it's not sadism posing as art. It's dark, and unrelenting, but it's art, and one of Haneke's most important works. He thought it was important enough that he made it twice.