“Fiction is as just as real as reality – because you can see it.”
This line, spoken by one of the main characters of Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s 2008 remake of his own 1997 film, sums up the message of the film pretty nicely.
I had pretty high expectations walking into the theater. The original was fantastic, and forced me to consider the way I view media, which no film I had ever seen did before. I was thrilled when I sat in the back row, in my favorite seat, with about 8 other people in the theater with me. No screaming children, no one on cell phones. Because of this, I was really able to get into and enjoy the movie.
I’ll preface the rest of the review by saying this: This movie is definitely not for everyone. Four of the eight other people in the theater with me walked out within the first 45 minutes of the film. It definitely polarizes its audience.
Funny Games is about a upper middle-class family who are accosted by a pair of Abercrombie and Fitch psychopaths at their summer home and forced to play humiliating “games” in order to stay alive. The opening scene, to most people’s surprise, is extremely serene. Ann (Naomi Watts) and George Farber (Tim Roth) are driving with their son George Jr. (Devon Gearhart) to their summer house. They play guessing games with opera CDs, and then, abruptly, John Zorn’s song “Bonehead” blasts over the soundtrack, and in red, block-style lettering the title of the film is emblazoned onto the screen.
The film’s a scene-for-scene remake of the original, so it’s not treading new ground as far as the direction. The sets look exactly as they did in the 1997 version, and everything’s essentially the same. Where this film truly shines over the original is the casting. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play the traumatized parents brilliantly, and the pairing of Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as the perfectly polite psychopaths Paul and Peter is awesome. Their innocent looks contrast their sociopathic tendencies.
There’s a cloud of nihilism that overcasts the entire film. There’s nothing wrong with the Farbers. They haven’t committed any real crimes, and they have a great familial bond. Paul and Peter chose them because they were next door. There’s an interaction that occurs between Paul and George Sr. just after the “games” begin. George asks, “Why?” and Paul replies quickly, “Why not?”. This is indicative of the message the film is trying to portray.
Funny Games is putting a mirror to the faces of the viewers, using the tropes of the genre to manipulate our feelings towards the film. Paul’s breaking of the fourth wall throughout the movie indicates this more than anything else. When Ann is searching for the family dog, Lucky, playing the ‘cold, warm, hot’ game with Paul, he looks at the camera and smirks. This fazed me the first time I saw the film, and took me out of the movie for a moment, forcing me to review what I’d watched so far, and more specifically, why I was watching it. What motivated me to come and watch this particular movie?
These are the questions Haneke is evoking when Paul acknowledges the film, saying things to the camera like “You’re on their side, aren’t you?”, making the audience look at who they were really behind. They came to a thriller to see the protagonists go through hell and come out the other side, so in a way, the viewer wants the villain to torture and harass the protagonists. His objective is to show you that by enjoying the film, you’re a part of it. The viewer is helping turn violence into entertainment, and Haneke delights in making his audience uncomfortable about watching his film.
My biggest problem with Funny Games is that I’ve seen it before. The message hasn’t changed at all. Although it’s still relevant today, it’s lost some of its force in the ten years between the films (especially with the success of the Saw series and its stance towards violence). Haneke’s retreading old ground here, and the question I kept asking was “Why?” There’s no reason, in my eyes, to remake this film. He’s said what he wanted to say already.
I enjoyed this movie pretty much from start to finish, but the message has been told before, by Michael himself in the original, as well as Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange. He’s not doing anything fresh, and as a fan of his work, I’m a bit disappointed that he isn’t putting his energy into new and more interesting projects. This is the only flaw I saw in this film, and were it not a remake, I would give it my full and uncompromising support.