What I found most striking about this trailer from German filmmaker Michael Haneke’s 1997 film Funny Games was not that I recognized the shots that he would re-create in his shot-for-shot remake a decade later: utilizing the same font and punk-rock theme song; the same image of a family with pleasant faces enjoying a long car ride about to end; the shot of a blond-haired boy with an innocent gaze through a screen door. But unlike Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake with Vince Vaughn, which was also a shot-for-shot remake (safe for an unnecessary additional shot of Vaughn masturbating), Haneke looks like he’s established the same feel that his original created. Haneke’s film is perhaps the most disturbing thing I’ve seen put to celluloid–a crafty thriller that manages to avoid showing much violence and features some performances and singular shots that will be seared into your brain for a long time.
George (Tim Roth) and Ann (Naomi Watts) arrive at their lakeside summer-home with their young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart). The father and son carefully put together their wooden sailboat after its put in water with the help of the neighbor’s guest Paul (Michael Pitt). Meanwhile, Mom starts cutting steaks for the grill when the other guest Peter (Brady Corbett) comes asking to borrow eggs. A simple set-up. What begins as an argument over dropped eggs becomes a torturous test of how much suffering the human body and mind can sustain.
Even though the three family members outnumber the two captors, you never get a sense that they’re ever going to retain control of the situation. Peter and Paul, aside from their biblical names, are purely demonic creations. They laugh at the struggles of their hostages, constantly ask to be treated with respect, and often demand to be fed. They redefine the rules of childish games such as “hot and cold” and “eeny-meeny-miny-mo.” There seems to be no motive behind their actions and the film moves so briskly and without restraint that you never really stop and ask.
With the stakes as high as they are in this film, it wouldn’t work without great performances. Michael Haneke could recreate every motion, look, and instance to the tee, but without capable actors this film would’ve sunk right away. Naomi Watts is terrific. She’s put in the unenviable position of household head and is often the target of Peter and Paul’s attacks. Roughly halfway through the film, the pacing slows to a crawl and we’re given an 8-minute shot of Naomi Watts trying to get out of her shackled state. This is essentially an acting exercise, but it’s effective. Watts is so engaging when she’s on film, she’s always in the moment, and above all, she is a risk-taker. She’s never vain and her harsh appearance mirrors her reality.
As good as Watts is, it’s Michael Pitt who’s transcendent. For almost a decade I’ve called Pitt “Leonardo DiCaprio with downs-syndrome.” He’s taken on some of those roles that have resembled DiCaprio’s early career, starring in raw indies that have challenged his range and depth as an actor. Pitt played extreme naivete in Larry Clark’s Bully, played with eroticism in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, and experienced life as a Kurt Cobain-ish tortured rock star in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. Like DiCaprio, every performance has brought a bit more of Pitt’s talent to the surface, but it’s his performance in Funny Games that will really bring this thesp into the limelight. Pitt is diabolically charming and cool. He is in control, and even though he refers to Tim Roth as “the captain,” it’s Pitt that steers the proverbial vessel. His character is the only one that breaks the fourth wall between the scene and the audience; his is the only character that can literally manipulate the film we’re seeing. However, his knowing glances to the audience are not shtick, and they aren’t played for amusement in the same way Ferris winks to the audience. Every time Pitt takes over the narrative it’s because we’re being reminded that HE’S the captain, not Roth. This tactic forces us to ask what it is we want from the film and also to make us question why it is we may be asking for bloodshed.
The theme is essentially this: there is no such thing as fake violence. Torture porn in film’s like Hostel or Captivity has numbed the collective audience to re-assure themselves that what their seeing is not real–it’s a figment of a filmmaker’s imagination. What Funny Games suggests, however, is that violence on film is sparked by real violence in life. So essentially, what we’re seeing on film is REAL violence, and audiences will be forced to recognize this. Just like last year’s No Country for Old Men, Funny Games plays with the conventions of movie violence and asks us “Why” do we accept it?
Sometimes bad guys have to win, if only to make us face the fact that this happens every day.