Michael Haeneke’s film Funny Games is 98% a superbly crafted (and crafty) art house horror film. It is also 2% a deconstruction of itself. The problem is, the 2% is like a sliver; you pick at it, crippling your reaction to everything else. This is exactly what Haeneke has in mind. I’ve delayed judgment since I saw Haeneke’s French language original a year ago. The remake has forced me finally to codify what I think. We’ll get to that.
A well-heeled family is driving up to the lake house in a shiny SUV, towing a sailboat. We first spot them via a helicopter shot, with classical music playing on the soundtrack. The film cuts gradually closer, until we are just inside the car, where the windshield should be. The mother, Ann, is a stunning blonde with an expressive face (she’s played by Naomi Watts). The father, George, played by Tim Roth, has a gentle manner. The tow-headed eleven-year-old, played by Devon Gearhart, with eyes a fawn, leans forward in his seat. He wants to be between the parents; they want to have him there. Ann and George are switching CDs in the stereo (the soundtrack appears to be diegetic); their travel game is “guess the opera”.
Haeneke, the director, is setting the family up for attack. The soundtrack switches to a head banging track that the family cannot hear, a scream of primal rage. The title “Funny Games” slams over their faces in blood red. Haeneke is suggesting that the family’s civility and naïveté make them helpless, and their affluence means they’re asking for it. The games have begun.
The film’s next minutes are all set-up. Not a beat is wasted. There’s the white gate that whispers closed. There’s the dog, the golf clubs, the eggs, the cell phone. A young man in his early twenties – Peter, played by Brady Corbet — dressed in impeccable whites and even white gloves, knocks at the gauzily translucent door. He is a golf pro, he says, he’s staying with the neighbors, he says, they sent him to borrow a few eggs. Ann opens the door, failing to pass the first test of eligibility for survival in a home invasion movie.
Soon, Paul (Michael Pitt) arrives, also in pristine white. Ann senses that something is wrong – she’s in trouble. Now George and Georgie come through the door, and all the players are on stage. An intense life-or-death drama begins to play out within the home, about which I’ll say little. The ambiguously-sexed Paul and Tom – are their names Paul and Tom? – are here coldly to toy with the family’s lives like two children devastating an ant hill.
The precision of the directing, and the high quality of the acting, achieve a fearsome gravity. But then that gravity is pulled off center. Whenever we are most on tenterhooks, Paul peers over his shoulder, breaking the fourth wall, addressing us directly. “You were expecting a satisfying plot development, right?” he asks us, slapping us out of the movie’s reality, distancing us from what only seems to be happening.
I felt robbed of my empathy. Ostensibly, Haeneke is impugning our voyeuristic tendency to get off on violence. He’s right; we do that. But at the same time, he has created a film of surpassing sadism. The joke’s on us. How did he convince the actors to commit so fully, when they must have known that he would throw their work out the window to make a point?
I haven’t seen all of Haeneke’s films, but I’ve seen enough to know that he is a filmmaker of great power and serious purpose, who gravitates to emotional extremes. He is well matched by Naomi Watts, who also produced this remake, who has some need for her beautiful face to become puffy and raw with grief and terror. It’s tremendously difficult to craft a good horror film; Haeneke has done it, but then discards it as if it were beneath him. Remaking his earlier film, shot for shot, targeting America directly this time, also reveals his disdain. Why else do it? For the money? What he’s left us is confusion, betrayal of trust, and damage. While some have mustered ample evidence to support the conclusion that the film is brilliant, to my thinking, it ain’t cricket.