It really brings up a lot of questions when a director chooses to remake his own film. Why not do it properly the first time? What has changed in the ten years between the two films? Michael Haneke (‘The White Ribbon,’ ‘Cache,’ ‘The Piano Teacher’) unleashed the original Austrian version of ‘Funny Games’ back in 1997. Something about it never really sat right with him about it, though. It took a decade, but in 2008, he revisited his controversial thriller by doing a shot-for-shot American remake. How did it turn out? Read on.
George (Tim Roth), Anna (Naomi Watts) and their young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are a loving family who arrive at their lake house for some R and R. It doesn’t take long for things to go askew because two young men come over to their house and ask to borrow eggs. These polite fellows are Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt) and they just so happen to be wearing outfits that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ Upon receiving the eggs, Peter and Paul appear to depart only to return claiming that their eggs broke. They ask for more eggs. George feels that they are overstepping their boundaries and asks them to leave. They break his leg with a nearby golf club and hold the entire family captive.
Peter and Paul want to play a game with the family where the rules are simple: if the Farbers (the family) are alive by 9 am the next morning, they win. Between now and then, the captors put their prisoners through a series of ‘games’ that help to determine whether or not they will be killed.
Don’t let the kids watch this one. It’s a very unpleasant film in a lot of ways. Most of the violence is kept off screen, but that doesn’t really do much to dilute the effect that it has on the audience.
The whole point of the film is to make some commentary about the desensitizing nature of violence in media. For whatever reason, Haneke always felt that the film would make more sense as an American film than an Austrian one. That may have something two do with cultural differences in media which this examiner is sadly ignorant about.
On one hand, with reality television’s rise and films like ‘Hostel,’ ‘Saw’ and other torture-based horror films becoming prominent since 1997, one could make the case that a film like this is more relevant in 2008 than it would have been in the late ’90’s. From a timing standpoint, Haneke was probably right on with the remake.
On the other hand, the villains with ambiguous motivation and no back story gives the impression of creating random instances of violence for no reason other than to prove a point. While it can really up the fright factor to leave some things to the imagination, there is always the danger of under-explaining things.
It’s also a little troubling that the protagonists are more character-types than fully realized people. George is the impotent (not literally) father-figure who is ashamed of his inability to protect his family. Anna is the (relatively) strong female character who has to resort to drastic measures to save all of their lives.
Tim Roth has next to nothing to do. Naomi Watts really earns her paycheck while Pitt and Corbet play characters that are perfect when they are icily detached from what they are doing, but their occasional bickering back and forth makes it hard to believe that they could be focused enough to do this without eventually being caught. Oh, and their tendency to break the fourth wall and address the audience is annoyingly self-aware.
Special features include: nothing, absolutely nothing.
Taken as a whole, ‘Funny Games’ isn’t really that bad of a film. If you’re not afraid of a few instances of deliberate pacing (aka, stretches where absolutely nothing happens) there is definitely some rewarding stuff to be found. A little trimming would have gone a long way. There are a few moments that could surprise the not so jaded viewer and maybe the film’s message will even reach you.
Perhaps the film is a victim of its own commentary. Those of us who have seen far too many movies for our own good will be able to spot some of the scares coming from a mile away. Maybe that means we really are desensitized to movie violence. Images that should shock and horrify us only result in an underwhelming sense of familiarity. Is that what you were going for, Michael Haneke?
If you want to see the best possible example of a film commenting on violence in film, rent/buy the Belgian film ‘Man Bites Dog.’
Rated R 112 minutes 2008
When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!