Things To Do

Funny Games (R) ***½

Naomi Watts with her family's young tormentors, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet.
Naomi Watts with her family's young tormentors, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet.

By Rene Rodriguez

The only thing wrong with Funny Games — aside from being nowhere as amusing as its title implies — is that director Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 German-language thriller can’t possibly recreate the experience of watching the original for the first time.

But if you haven’t seen the first Funny Games — and apparently enough people didn’t, since Haneke decided to remake it in English — then you’re in for an exceedingly nasty and vicious exercise in cinematic manipulation and head-gamesmanship. The premise could not be simpler: An upscale married couple (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) and their young son (Devon Gearhart) head out to their country home for a weekend vacation, where they are visited by two polite, well-spoken, neatly dressed young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who turn out to be Satans incarnate — or something close to it.

The movie unfolds over the course of one night, where the two punks, who call themselves everything from Peter and Paul to Tom and Jerry, use the terrified family for their own amusement, subjecting them to a series of ”games” that revolve around psychological and physical torture. Haneke, the sort of artist who must sleep on a bed made of cast-iron metal, pushes you so closely into the suffering and despair of the victims that watching Funny Games is more of an endurance test than anything else. This film is, to put it mildly, not easy to watch.

But there’s another layer to the movie — one that is hinted at early on, when one of the thugs (Pitt) makes an aside to the camera, enlisting the viewer in the crimes unfolding before them — that makes Funny Games something trickier and more interesting than a post-modern Straw Dogs. Some people argue that Haneke’s attempt to punish audiences for seeking out the sort of entertainment he is delivering is too facile or obvious, or that the film has the unintended effect of making Charlton Heston and the NRA crowd seem like prescient geniuses.

But the experience of watching Funny Games, be it the original or this version, is never forgotten, whatever your ultimate impression of the film. Besides, it’s not every movie that can make a scene in which a neighbor comes over to borrow some eggs feel so excruciatingly suspenseful. I mean, they’re just eggs, right?