Funny Games (1997)

Back in 1997, before the torture-porn movies like the Saw and Hostel franchises, writer-director Michael Haneke made the film Funny Games, combining twisted and deadly games with a reflexive look at the audience of such fare. Haneke's movie was just remade for American audiences, but the German original --reviewed here -- remains quite chilling.

During the opening credits of Funny Games the music abruptly switches from soothing classical to speed metal, and this summarizes the tone of the film. Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Anna (Susanne Lothar) are heading to their lake house for a vacation with their young son Georgie, and things could not be more ideal. The family is getting along perfectly, their house is beautiful, they have a boat for sailing, and while the home is gated Georg and Anna know and like all their neighbors.

The serpents in paradise are two young adults: talkative Paul (Arno Frisch) and quiet, slightly heavy Peter (Frank Giering). Dressed in matching white shorts, sweaters, sneakers and gloves, Paul and Peter could be vacationers, or prep school students, and they innocently appear on Anna's doorstep seeking some eggs for a neighbor. Tension quickly begins to build, and in no time the two have smashed Georg's leg with his own golf club and taken the family hostage. The two bet that the family will be dead by 9:00 the next morning and then subject them to some twisted, juvenile, and quite lethal games.

Funny Games is brutal in its simplicity. There are no grand schemes or elabnorate deathtraps; Paul and Peter use household items -- a golf club, a kitchen knife, a rifle off the wall - and their "games" are juvenile and one-sided. The cast does a fine job, from the polite and deadly psychopaths to the family growing more haggard and desperate as their ordeal drags on. Haneke also knows that sometimes less is more, and he creates some of the greatest suspense and horror offscreen, as when there's a gunshot elsewhere while a character calmly makes a sandwich.

But what about the commentary on the violence? Several times Haneke has Paul break the fourth wall, talking directly to the camera and the audience about the goings-on in the movie (and, at one point, changing the action of the movie). This is meant to be a commentary on the audience's complicity in the violence -- do we think these games are funny? Why are we watching? -- but it serves to sever some of the tension by reminding us that this is artificial.
Still, it is refreshing to have a movie that challenges us about its violence instead of simply wallowing in sadism. Even with its forced cleverness, Funny Games is a deliberately disturbing ride.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

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