'Funny Games': Last Laughs, By Kurt Loder

Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt adrift in the heart of darkness.

Life sucks. We're born in pain, schooled in torment, and shadowed throughout by a bleak, inescapable fate. There is no God, no love, no mercy, and anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly not in on the cruel joke.

That's how the German director Michael Haneke seems to see things, anyway. His brilliant and terrifying and borderline-unwatchable new movie, "Funny Games" (an English-language remake of his own 1997 German film of the same name) pushes this point of view about as far as it can go. It opens with a well-to-do couple, Ann and George (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), and their 12-year-old son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart), driving through the far, leafy reaches of eastern Long Island on the way to their big, gated vacation home. Their house is one of several widely spaced around a placid bay, and en route they pull over to call out a greeting to a pair of neighbors who are standing on the lawn of their own country estate. Standing with this couple are two young men in what look like tennis whites. The neighbors are acting oddly, and Ann and George, mildly puzzled, continue on to their nearby home.

A short time later, after Ann and George have settled in, the husband from the neighboring house appears at their gate accompanied by one of the young men they saw him with earlier. The kid tells George his name is Paul (Michael Pitt), and we notice that along with his white tennis outfit, he's also wearing white gloves. The neighbor seems ill at ease in Paul's presence. Having made this fateful introduction to George, he and Paul leave.

Before long, the other young man Ann and George saw with the neighbors appears on the porch. His name is Peter (Brady Corbet), and he too is wearing white gloves. He tells Ann he's come to borrow some eggs; the woman in the neighboring house has run out. Peter is enormously polite, ridiculously solicitous. His request for eggs seems simple enough, but it becomes oddly complicated. Then Paul turns up again. He too is ornately gracious. Ann, by now creeped out, wants both of these characters gone from her house. They feign puzzlement at her sudden hostility. They grow angry; they don't leave. When George and his son come in from the dock, where they've been rigging the family sailboat, terrible things begin to happen. Followed by much, much worse things.

Eventually, Peter and Paul tell the family that they've come to play a game. They bet that by the end of the next 12 hours, Ann and George and their son will all be dead. Presumably, the couple themselves will want to bet otherwise. Turning directly to the camera, Paul addresses us, the viewers. He knows we're on Ann and George's side, he says. Not that it matters. (Haneke doesn't overwork the old fourth-wall thing, so it's still unsettling later on, when, at an especially portentous juncture, with hopelessness thick in the air, Paul turns to us once again. "What do you think?" he asks, with a small, chilling smirk. "Don't you want a full-length movie, with plausible plot developments?" Too bad if we do.)

There is of course nothing funny about the games this picture plays. Although it's bathed in country sunlight at the outset, the movie has a black heart. The director slowly dismantles our expectations for a story of this sort — that the besieged family will escape, that justice and virtue will prevail. Whenever respite seems imminent, the menace suddenly mutates — "Level two," Paul announces, at one especially dispiriting point.

The film is like an extreme torture-porn movie, but with the torture and humiliation staged off-screen, out of our view. Haneke's famously unmoving camera parks in front of the action with a comfortless impartiality, taking in the two captors' inhuman perversity but then blinking away whenever mayhem actually erupts. We hear howls of anguish, but what we see is Paul prowling the family's kitchen in search of a snack. We listen as Paul and his partner hound Ann to strip off her clothes in front of everybody, but the camera never leaves her half-crazed face as she does. Real fans of pain and abasement would feel cheated. (No doubt they'd also be disoriented by Haneke's commitment to bare soundtracks — there's no score here to push and punch up the action. In a breathtaking betrayal of the movie's nature, its trailer is fitted out with sprightly music not present in the film itself — apparently a desperate attempt to make this hard-sell picture seem like some sort of quirky comedy. Don't be misled.)

Haneke's unusual narrative strategy has the no doubt unintended effect of undermining his purpose in making the picture. In the movie's production notes, the director says he decided to remake his original film with an English-speaking cast because he believed Americans needed to see it. He disapproves of the sort of American movies in which violence and degradation are paraded across the screen for desensitized audiences to savor. The man is a Euro-art-house moralist of a familiar sort. But in carefully pulling away from the loathsome goings-on in his story, he loses all opportunity for moral illumination. We would have to see the awful things that are happening in order to be unsettled by the conflict between our feelings of arousal and shame (if arousal is in fact what most people would feel — a dubious contention). The movie that Haneke has made is thus uninstructive in this regard.

What it is, instead, is something very different. Not a new kind of monster movie, exactly (the implacable-maniac tradition dates back at least to the 1955 "Night of the Hunter"), but a horror flick with an awful new intimacy. The actors are all fine, and Naomi Watts (also one of the film's executive producers) gives a harrowing, fearless performance. But the picture derives a lot of its dark power from Michael Pitt's extraordinary portrayal of murderous emotional dislocation. With his cold, insect gaze, his heavily veiled and inexplicable hostility, he's a deeply alarming presence. We're never told who he really is, or what he and his twisted sidekick want (they're not robbers; they seem like particularly soulless preppies). It's only slowly that we realize where they've come from, and only at the dismal end that we know where they're going next. By then, like the movie's other characters, we've abandoned all hope.

Check out Kurt Loder's review of "Flash Point."

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