"Funny Games": Three stars
"Funny Games" is an unpleasant, unsettling and harrowing film that will send all but the strongest constitutions racing for the theater exits.
It may also be some kind of horror masterpiece, not for what you see (the worst violence takes place off screen) but for the way it rubs our noses in the notion of violence as entertainment.
Michael Henke has remade his 1997 European hit virtually frame for frame, only he's set it in America -- which is, after all, the mother lode of cinema violence.
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The story is simple. A well-to-do family -- father George (Tim Roth), mother Ann (Naomi Watts) and young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) -- are held captive in their comfortable summer home by two baby-faced young psychopaths who calmly but insistently (and, ultimately, violently) entice them to participate in a series of sadistic "games."
The miscreants, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), seem at first to belong in this posh neighborhood of seaside mansions guarded by high fences and electric gates. They wear tennis whites and have the dissolute look of kids who have grown up rich and bored. They're well-mannered and chatty.
Except that little by little they insinuate themselves into this household and, while never letting down their show of civilized politeness, systematically terrorize the family. They start by breaking George's leg when he tries to make them leave. Now he's unable to walk or defend his loved ones.
Peter is something of a pudgy dim bulb. The loquacious Paul is clearly the brains of the outfit and the one who insists that one and all behave in a civilized manner even as things turn ever uglier. "It's easier when things are polite," he explains.
Hanke is a master at establishing an atmosphere of impending dread and doom. And then he builds upon it.
Most American films with this premise would find a way for the father (or the mother, or the kid, or the cops) to save the day. Hanke's jaded sensibilities won't allow such an easy solution, though he's perfectly happy to dangle tantalizing possibilities of escape in front of us.
"Why don't you just kill us?" Ann asks, almost pleading for an end to her torment.
"You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment," is the chilling reply.
"Funny Games" is borderline unbearable, something Hanke acknowledges by having one of the psychos turn to the camera 40 minutes in and asking us, the audience, how we're enjoying ourselves.
This collapse of the fourth wall happens so quickly you almost wonder if you imagined it. But no, this is Hanke's way of taking us out of an impossibly ugly situation, if but for a second, and reminding us that it's only a movie.
At the same time this device, which is employed several more times, forces us to ask ourselves: Are we enjoying this? And if not, what makes this not fun when we so frequently embrace screen mayhem as a form of escapism?
Roth and Watts are painfully good at portraying individuals reduced to the most basic emotional responses of desperation, fear, pain and resignation. Young Gearhart is heartbreaking as their terrified child.
Pitt and Corbet are so horrifying and hateful that I started wondering if I shouldn't buy a handgun for the home -- a testament to just how thoroughly Henke's assault on our senses and sensibilities succeeds.