Excruciatingly intense, director Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games' is a scene-by-scene remake of his 1997 Austrian film of the same name. Designed as an exercise in criticising (as Haneke puts it) "a certain American cinema [which] toys with human beings and makes violence consumable", its title is ironic. The physical tortures on-screen are anything but funny, with much of the movie's psychological violence deeply disturbing.
Cultured upper-middle class couple Ann (Watts) and George (Roth) have arrived at their lakeside holiday home with their young son Georgie (Gearhart) intending to spend time golfing and boating on the lake with their like-minded bourgeois neighbours. Within minutes of their arrival, two blonde, boyish young men (Pitt & Corbet), dressed all in white, arrive at the house looking to borrow some eggs. Said eggs are then smashed, along with Tim Roth's leg, as Watts is gagged and bound and the two boys embark on a spree of senseless and motiveless violence.
From the film's opening, Haneke attacks the senses with the opening credits initially playing out over no soundtrack. Classical music then accompanies our introduction to the happy family before our ears are suddenly - and without warning - brutally assaulted by a fierce swab of European death metal. It helps create the film's overriding feeling that before anything bad happens, it always feels as if something bad is about to happen. Haneke has the ability to make his audience feel constantly nervous through even the mildest scenes; when the tension reaches palpable levels it's almost impossible not to squirm in your seat.
The post-modern twist arrives unexpectedly. On three occasions Pitt addresses the audience directly, asking us to bet on whether the couple will make it out alive. He also makes reference to plot development, characterisation, etc making him very aware that there is an audience present. The effect of using such a device is to make the audience feel like an accomplice in the movie; an accomplice to the violence. When Ann asks her tormenters: "Why don't you just kill us?", Pitt simply replies: "You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment." The audience aren't allowed to forget their participation in pushing along the bloodshed.
Shaking his head at how bloodthirsty some cinema audiences can be, Haneke may have a point. Some will find his finger-wagging infuriating, though Stallone's recent 'Rambo' - with its hilariously high death count and 'so-over-the-top they're funny' death scenes – is a case in point of how violence has wholly become entertainment. The attitude is, the more the better.
Haneke's direction is superb and the film is very well-made. Michael Pitt is exceptionally creepy as the chief, but polite, tormentor, while Naomi Watts also excels in what is a very physically demanding role.
Torturous viewing at times – if only because it is so unbearably intense - 'Funny Games' is certainly not a Friday night movie by any stretch, and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Nonetheless it is worth investigation and poses some interesting questions about what we like to watch on our cinema screens.