The most effective thrillers and horror films are the ones that place sympathetic characters in precarious situations and then make the audience watch helplessly as those characters do everything that the viewer would in order to survive. If we, as an audience, are lucky -- and the filmmaker is only trying to entertain us -- then perhaps one or two of those characters emerge from the conflict alive. On the other hand, if the filmmaker is operating by a different set of rules or trying to deliver a distinct message with his or her film, then the audience might be in for a bit of a rough ride. This said, anyone familiar with the name Michael Haneke knows that by no means is he simply trying to entertain us; Haneke's films are persistently polarizing, consistently challenging, and never forgiving -- and his English-language remake of his own 1997 film Funny Games is as bleak, nihilistic, and as difficult to endure as the original.
In the film, a vacationing family arrives at the luxurious summer cottage for a relaxing week of golfing and sailing, only to fall victim to a pair of sadistic tormentors intent on making them take part in a series of disturbing games which will almost certainly end in death. Funny Games is a film about suffering, and while the ill-fated protagonists indeed endure their fare share, the person in the equation who suffers the most is the viewer. From the contrast of soothing classical music against an explosively chaotic John Zorn track during the opening credits sequence -- an otherwise peaceful drive down a scenic country road -- any cognitive thinker will immediately realize that he or she is officially out of the "cinematic safe zone," so to speak. And though Haneke's intentions may initially seem somewhat abstract as he pulls back the reigns and settles into what appears to be by-the-numbers thriller territory, there are moments peppered throughout the film that gradually clue us in to the fact that there's more to these "funny games" than the surface details might suggest.
Ironically, it may well be that conservative filmgoers who identify most closely with the filmmaker's observations concerning the issue of violence as entertainment are the same ones who will take the most offense to the manner he uses to express it. And really, who can blame them? It certainly isn't pleasant to watch an otherwise happy family tormented over the course of two hours, though it does make for some interesting food for thought, whether you agree with the director's unique approach or not. Likewise, some may argue that Haneke isn't being sincere in condemning the voyeuristic thrills of violence considering that we've already seen these same games played out onscreen -- in nearly identical fashion -- over a decade ago. To this viewer, at least, it would seem that Haneke wants to ensure that his message has been received by an English-speaking audience. Perhaps, considering how liberally Americans tend to unconditionally accept the role that violence plays in popular entertainment, this second attempt is a noble one. On the other hand, adventurous English-speaking viewers who had already endured the original and received the message are likely to find that Haneke really has nothing new to say here.
In terms of performances, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart are absolutely fearless. Though Roth has the somewhat thankless task of simply grimacing and grunting his way through most of the film, his perceived weakness of character serves well to contrast Watts' more assertive take on the role of the decidedly more protective (not to mention proactive) mother and wife. While Gearhart has precious little to say in terms of dialogue, his facial expressions speak volumes -- chillingly highlighting the moment in which a child is rudely awakened to the fact that there are forces in this world that even his mom and dad are helpless to fight against. As their tormentors, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet are nightmares dressed in white; a pair of perverse, soft-spoken sadists clad to country-club perfection. It's easy to see why the unsuspecting family would fall into the pair's deadly game, given their deceptive mask of politeness, and once those bleached whites become stained with the blood of the innocent, it's absolutely horrifying to see how far good manners can go in keeping their prey off-balance.
That is where Haneke's skills as a true master of tension come into play. The family takes all the cautions that viewers prone to screaming at the screen would likely take, and Haneke takes great care to show us just how easily things could go wrong regardless of this preparedness. It's only later, when Haneke reveals his true intentions by committing the ultimate act of cinematic sadism -- one in which all hope is essentially stripped away -- that we begin to realize that we never really were in thriller territory after all. For those in the audience who are willing to digest this transgression and put their trust in the director, Haneke's unconventional technique will no doubt serve as the fodder for some interesting debate concerning the role that violence plays in media as well as our perceived desensitization to such destructiveness as a society. For viewers who feel cheated and violated by it, well...they're arguably just as justified, though they may take pause and reevaluate their reaction to violence in entertainment once they get over their initial disgust.