With the door perhaps beginning to shut on the brief era of torture porn--low-budget bloodspatterers such as Saw and Hostel, released by arty studios for enormous profits--it is perhaps unsurprising that Warner Independent Pictures (distributor of such lofty fare as Paradise Now, In the Valley of Elah, and Good Night and Good Luck) had the bright idea of remaking Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. It’s really the best of all worlds: a brutal psycho flick in which two preppy killers systematically imprison, torment, and murder an innocent family--that is, the kind of film you can market to a far broader audience than, say, Darfur Now--but one Warner doesn’t have to feel ashamed about. After all, this is no indie gorefest thrown together by irony-soaked kids, but rather an honest-to-goodness, we-can-defend-this-against-any-detractors “art” film by a Cannes-certified European director.
Haneke is an extremely gifted filmmaker, as his previous movie, the fascinating but ultimately frustrating Caché, aptly demonstrated. And Funny Games, a shot-for-shot remake of his own 1997 German-language original, is not only a meticulously well-crafted film, but one that has something to say about violence and viewership, the audience’s complicity in the creation of cinema.
It is also, however, an obscenity--a characterization I’m not at all sure Haneke himself would dispute. Funny Games is hardly the first violent, sadistic film to present itself as a critique of violence and sadism in film: Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (which Haneke himself has derided) is the most obvious example, but one can find variations on the theme in the work of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Peckinpah, De Palma, Tarantino, and any number of others. Yet Haneke’s film is, by design, perhaps the most repellent.
The story, in brief, is that upscale couple Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth), along with their eight-year-old son Georgie (Devon Gearheart) and their golden retriever Lucky, drive out to their beautiful waterside vacation house for a brief family getaway. They are soon visited by two young men in immaculate golf whites and gloves, who introduce themselves as Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett). The boys initially ask to borrow some eggs, but when the eggs are broken, seemingly by accident, their impositions grow more aggressive. Before long, the family is bound, beaten, and humiliated, and Paul and Peter make a “bet” that they will all be dead by the next morning.
It is not an idle bet, and the rest of the film follows a pattern of hope dangled--an escape to the neighbors’ house? a cell phone call to 911?--and then brutally withdrawn. The encroach of evil is slow and methodical, but it will not be denied. To describe the film as an unpleasant viewing experience would be an indictable understatement, and I strongly recommend that anyone not being paid for the chore find a more enjoyable way to pass two hours, such as dental surgery or completing tax returns. (Warning: Minor spoilers follow, but this is a film I’d advise attending with eyes wide open, if at all.)
Haneke is at pains to remind us that Funny Games is not merely an exercise in sadistic manipulation, but rather a commentary on the ways we are inevitably manipulated by the medium of film. Yet the steps Haneke takes to distinguish his film from the violent trash he claims to be critiquing are, like the message itself, somewhat tired and conventional. Paul occasionally breaks the fourth wall to toss an aside directly to the audience, for instance--an admission of cinematic artifice that hasn’t been fresh for decades. An even hokier gimmick is unveiled when Ann shoots Peter with a shotgun--is there hope of escape after all?--and Paul calmly locates a remote, rewinds the film itself to a moment before the shooting, and takes the gun from Ann before she can use it.
Haneke’s most significant departure from genre standards is his refusal to offer the more explicit forms of titillation in which horror directors typically truck. When Paul and Peter force Ann to strip for their amusement, for instance, we see her only from the neck up. And, charitably, the film’s most horrific acts of violence all occur off-screen. But I’m not sure this reticence represents quite the moral and philosophical clean break that Haneke imagines it to. No, we don’t have to witness a helpless innocent having his head blown off. But we do spend an interminable scene in the presence of his corpse, as the red mush that was once inside his cranium drips down the wall. And while Haneke is coy regarding Ann’s brief nudity, he has no qualms about filming her in her underwear for the better part of an hour.
Funny Games works far better, in other words, as an exploitation film than as a commentary on the ways in which film exploits us. The moral weight of the atrocities Haneke puts on display--including the brutalization of a young boy--is simply too great for the flimsy philosophical scaffolding undergirding them.
Moreover, while it was easy to characterize Haneke’s original, Austrian version of Funny Games as a well-intentioned mistake, it’s hard to be so generous with the American remake. For one thing, it veers further than its predecessor toward the kind of open titillation it is ostensibly critiquing: The indisputably gorgeous Watts spends a great deal of time in just bra and panties (her predecessor in the role, the less-glamorous Susanne Lothar, was afforded a slip), her “stripping” scene comprises one of the movie’s trailers, and the poster, featuring her beautiful, tear-stained face, recalls nothing so much as a '70s-era blood-and-boobs exploitation flick. And while I wasn’t able to make a close comparison, it seems Haneke paints the walls with considerably more blood than the first time around.
The new casting, too, changes the feel of the film. Whereas the original actors brought a certain Teutonic reserve to the proceedings, the Hollywood players let it all hang out. In particular, Michael Pitt offers his characteristic brand of sexually ambiguous perversity in the role of Paul, whom Austrian actor Arno Frisch had played leaner and meaner. And unlike Ulriche Muhe (of The Lives of Others fame), who gave George a quiet stoicism, Tim Roth sweats and yelps his wounded pain with an intensity that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Reservoir Dogs. As a result, the film burns hotter than Haneke’s original, and cannot help but feel rather sleazier.
2008 is also not 1997, and many of the innovations that set the original Funny Games apart are no longer particularly innovative. The idea of a story without catharsis, in which the villains win, the heroes die, and justice is never served, is now commonplace among horror films, as epitomized by the Saw series (or at least the first two, which were frankly all I could stomach). And the ironic asides and self-referential genre commentary have been taken to their reductio ad absurdum by the Scream trilogy, the first of which was released in December 1996. How can a cinematic critique expect to remain relevant when its subjects have already incorporated it?
At its most basic level, the mere fact of the remake undermines its own high-mindedness. There’s a certain “fool me once ... ” quality to the whole endeavor. Haneke has claimed in interviews that, given that the target of the film’s criticism is Hollywood movies, it is only natural that he remake the film in Hollywood, for an American audience. But the film-crit crowd receptive to his disquisitions on the representation of violence and the role of the spectator is hardly one that’s put off by foreign-language films; and the exponentially larger audience that may attend this version--the Saw/Hostel folks, the I’m-not-going-to-watch-a-movie-in-German folks, the I-think-Naomi-Watts-might-get-naked-in-this-flick folks--are unlikely to come away feeling chastened for their moral complicity in the cycle of cinematic cruelty. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting that the reason a division of Time Warner chose to remake Funny Games--probably the most violent of Haneke’s major films, and the most simple--was not because there was a particular point of cinematic philosophy the corporation wanted to make.
Funny Games will have its defenders, of course, who will describe it as “disturbing” and “thought-provoking.” But while it is indisputably the former, you’re unlikely to hear much detail about the latter, and certainly nothing viewers couldn’t have gleaned as easily from Haneke’s earlier excursion into the cinema of home invasion. The truth is that even the most sophisticated of moviegoers (and critics) enjoy a frisson of terror now and again, especially when it comes packaged as a treatise about the nature of film. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But being morally perturbed is not the same thing as gaining moral knowledge, and the lessons Haneke claims to impart in Funny Games are ones that his viewers already know, or will never learn.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.