Funny Games may be the most bitter and cynical look at comfortable American life this side of South Park, and the farthest thing you could get from a date movie or Juno, or whatever the frou-frou happy Hollywood Dream Factory churns out. Funny Games takes happy cliches and generic expectations, revels in them for a little while, then brilliantly demolishes them in front of you, winking, smiling and laughing all the while. Politeness, the family dog, eggs for breakfast – “Fuck it”, says Funny Games. “Those eggs are toast and there’s nothing (NOTHING!!) you can do about it except cry.”
Which Naomi Watts does, a lot, and with good reason.
The film starts off innocently with a birds-eye shot of the family vehicle on its way to the vacation home. Tim Roth, Naomi Watts and their son listen to peaceful classical music. Suddenly, ear-splitting metal music kicks in and the title shows up in blood red letters. Spooky! They settle in their supremely eggshell white house and make nice with the neighbors until two handsome young lads clad in white come in and beat Tim in the knee with a golf club. Naomi and son come to his aid but the family becomes cut off from the outside, trapped in the house with the maniac youths, who force them to play demeaning “games.” The 20-something psychos – named Peter and Paul, though they sometimes call themselves Tom and Jerry or Beavis and Butthead – make a bet with the family: that they will die by 9 a.m. the next day.
If that sounds chilling and cruel, well, it is. Or, was. Thing is, Funny Games is Michael Haneke’s remake of his own 1997 movie. This was all done before and, arguably, has been improved upon since. However, the remake is just as good if not better. Funny Games plays with expectations, and reality itself (or what passes for reality in this digital age), and it’s all very terrifying and, in the right (wrong?) frame of mind, a lot of fun. Nonetheless, it’s nearly the same movie Haneke made in 1997. The same shots, the same gags, the same “games”, nearly the same dialogue, even the same house. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth even resemble the original actors. Except this time it’s in English and it looks way better than the grainy original. The technology changes – CD players replace tape decks – but structurally and thematically it’s similar. There’s no new ending, no new twist. It’s almost a copy.
And it’s not like the original version is so old. Obscure, sure, but the only audience this movie will probably get is the same audience as the original. It MAY attract new crowds but, c’mon, this is a movie about a family getting terrorized, how likely is that? And honestly, it’s just not as shocking or clever as it once was. It’s also a disappointment nothing was changed, which must be a fault on my part since the damn movie is supposed to shatter hope and expectation.
Funny Games is also not as violent as it would lead to believe. It’s a movie about violence but it’s way tamer than any number of crappy horror movies that come out every month. TV is way more violent and, yes, it does makes that point. There’s barely any blood and when there is, it’s seen after the fact, splattered on walls and televisions stuck on the Speed channel. The power in Funny Games is suggestion and performance. The violence is offscreen so all we see is Naomi’s horrified reaction. The son gets tortured but you never once see him harmed, you just hear his feral screams. It’s remarkable how such a simple cinematic slight of hand is still effective.
No stranger to remakes or horror (or horror remakes) Naomi Watts is undoubtedly the remake’s selling point. Looking darling even stripped down to her bare essentials, she’s also the movie’s executive producer, so it’s surprising how much she puts herself through the ringer, getting tied up in her underwear, hopping around and generally getting tormented. The fear, pain and anxiety looks genuine all around, and the son, tears streaming down his face, is just brilliant. The fantastic make-up deserves a mention – the family loses all color, they’re pale and strung out as hell. They look as white as the walls.
Hot on the heels of No Country‘s Anton Chigurh (or is that the other way around considering the original), the sadists arrive with little warning and no backstory. A stand-out scene involves the two sickos poking fun at the supposed need for a villain’s complicated origin, complete with a typical story about drug abuse and Oedipal explicitness. Then they laugh it off as a joke, a complicated lie. Who cares where they come from? These two bastards laugh in the face of convention and normalcy, seeking only to decimate the spoiled, snot-nosed bourgeois family in their safe, lakeside gated communities. The boys bridge the disconnect between the family in their hyperwhite house with the hyperviolent outside world. The pop culture references and channel surfing hammer this home.
A conversation near the end of the movie makes it all too clear. Similar to South Park’s ultra-bitter Imagination Land episodes (or Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which the conversation actually could be about), the topic of blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction arises. Are we in a fiction or reality? The scariest thing about Funny Games is this type of torment could happen. It does happen. Real life is way scarier than anything Peter and Paul could pull which is why good horror movies or thrillers owe it to the audience to tell it like it is – there is no happy ending, or there is no ending at all.
Or whatever you like. I want to think Funny Games is ambiguous enough to let you side with who want, let you think what you want. It challenges and chills, and it should be seen, especially by fans of the original and Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, a recent example of the exploration between a film’s violence and its audience. The remake, and I suppose this is its greatest reason for existence, fits comfortably as the latest misanthropic movie about the futility of existence. Chigurh, Daniel Plainview, Sweeney Todd: Paul and Peter came first. Now they’re back. That doesn’t mean futility isn’t funny. It’s right there in the title, after all. But if you really want comeuppance? Retribution? Try prayer.