A violent film without on-screen violence. A film where dogs are dead meat instead of rescuers. Where leg wounds mean you can’t walk, where daring escapes fail, where victims wet themselves in fear. Just like his throat-grabbing crossover stunners The Piano Teacher and Hidden, Michael Haneke’s 1997 chiller Funny Games was never what it appeared to be.
For his first ever English-language film, Haneke gives it to us all over again: a shot-for-shot remake of his original, meticulously reconstructed right down to the last snot-streaked drip of terror. There are minor updates (most notably as one character ponders his online existence), but the soundtrack, the dialogue, the sets… all the same. Once more, a pair of polite, unknowable sociopaths (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet) invade the holiday home of George (Tim Roth), Anna (Naomi Watts) and their young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) before subjecting them to a series of sadistic “games”.
Of course, the real ‘funny games’ aren’t between the family and their cherubic, white-gloved torturers. They’re between us and Haneke – this is the Austrian auteur’s provocative, hideously manipulative attempt to autopsy our relationship with screen violence. As a pure home-invasion thriller, it ranks with anything Wes Craven or Sam Peckinpah ever came close to. But as he crafts one of modern cinema’s most harrowing ordeals, Haneke dodges the explicit violence (as slaughter ensues, we watch someone make a sandwich) and unloads the meta-tricks.
The invaders’ names change throughout the film, from Peter and Paul to Tom and Jerry to Beavis and Butt-head. Every so often they stop to shoot a glance at the camera. They point out that it’s way too early in the film to kill their victims. And that’s all before Haneke delivers his coup de grace, in an stunning moment of medium (and audience) manipulation.
By this point, to Haneke’s reptilian delight, Funny Games becomes near unbearable. “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film,” said Haneke in 1997. “And anyone who stays, does.” Which would be fine – if the games weren’t rigged from the start. As exploitative as any grindhouse shocker or Hollywood blockbuster, Haneke’s film invites us to feel one state of florid emotion then punishes us for it minutes later. We’re the lab rats in a horrifying, brilliantly assured experiment in human cruelty.
So what is Haneke’s remake playing at? Going back to the scene of the crime 10 years later for such a forensic recreation suggests a pathological self-belief rather than an attempt to hone his vision (see Hitchcock or Michael Mann) or a fascinating self-assessment (see Von Trier and Jorgen Leth). The director has always aimed his gut-punch at American culture (even in German, the film has an English title) and now gets a second, dead-on swing at the target.
Co-producer Naomi Watts is exceptional as the suffering wife, as is Michael Pitt’s shoe-lace sicko. But Haneke cares not one jot for her wrenching performance, while Peter and Paul aren’t characters at all. They’re walking thriller conventions, jolting us again and again to the fact that It’s Only A Movie. Instead of kill-crazy psychos, they’re polite, calculating pseudo-intellectuals, rationalising their role in the carnage. Sound familiar? Question is, do they represent us or Haneke? Predictably, the answer is still probably both.
Cold, brilliant and very hard to like. Haneke’s movie is still a gripping, heart-pulping experience and his lack of humanity remains breathtaking.
- Certificate 18
- Director Michael Haneke
- Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet
- Screenplay Michael Haneke
- Distributor Tartan Films
- Running time 111 mins
SEE THIS IF YOU LIKED
Straw Dogs (1971)
Home Alone (1990)
Benny’s Video (1992)
Read the original aricle at Total Film.