In outline, Funny Games, a remake of Haneke's 1997 Austrian film of the same title, sounds little different from a hundred other ruthless home-invasion thrillers that cater to the gray zone of viewer enjoyment — what Hitchcock mischievously alluded to when he spoke of "putting the audience through it." Two preppie lads in tennis togs appear on the doorstep of a bourgeois family's vacation home. After some Pinteresque pleasantries that grow increasingly sinister, the vacationers get unnerved and ask the visitors to leave. With a show of aggrieved politeness, they refuse. They remain polite even after they borrow one of Dad's expensive brand-name golf clubs — to shatter his kneecap.
The visitors herd the family into the den and make a little wager that no one — not the pretty mom, not the well-to-do dad, not the blameless child — will live to see 9 a.m. the next morning. Their security devices will imprison them. Their self-defenses will fail. Let the games begin! The chattier of the two tormentors glances away from his captives and looks directly into our eyes. "Who are you betting on?" he asks — and he's not talking to an onlooker. He's addressing his accomplice. If you (I, we) stay to watch, you're agreeing to the rules of the game: Any chance of hope, escape, or revenge will be raised (yes!) only to be dashed. The family will be butchered, one by one, for your viewing pleasure. After all, as Michael Pitt's diabolically cordial ringleader informs his victims, "entertainment is important."
Although much remains the same about the so-called Funny Games U.S. — dialogue, set design, static camera setups, the sensation of deepening panic — Haneke has shifted a few variables. The language: It's now English, the lingua franca of international box office. The players: They're now Hollywood stars, which changes the dynamic. In the original, the actors' status as relative unknowns made the snuff-movie vibe chillingly credible. Tonight's menu serves up executive producer Naomi Watts (as Mom) and Tim Roth (as Dad) — people we pay to show us a good time, even if (especially if) it involves a little rough stuff.
I love that rough stuff — slasher movies, sexed-up drive-in trash — and the part of me that enjoys that release of free-floating anxiety, anger and geek-show prurience resents Haneke's imperious command of the moral high ground. In films such as Benny's Video, The Seventh Continent and 2005's Caché, Haneke emerged as a provocateur who combined Stanley Kubrick's exacting formal mastery with an icy concern about the alienating effects of surveillance culture. Even so, his forbiddingly intense films found a stateside audience in the early 1990s not with Kino-snobs but with cult-movie fans — seekers of the next cresting wave in cinematic extremity.
So here's Haneke — Brian De Palma with no libido — getting a heap of euros to reiterate what creeps we are to watch his movie. But what has the persnickety bastard made here, anyway, but grindhouse fare fogged with arthouse deodorant?
And yet. For anyone with the slightest ethical qualms about their hardcore jollies — and the nerve to face them with a searching mind and a reactivated conscience — Funny Games is a pulverizing but essential personality test. When the invaders (Pitt and Brady Corbet) force Watts to strip naked, do you own up to frustration that the camera never dips below her neckline? When NASCAR blares from the requisite big-screen TV on one side of the frame, and Watts lies bound, gagged and stripped on the other, does your attention wander back and forth? When the movie's most heinous act (of many contenders) occurs only as background noise — an offscreen maelstrom of shrieks, torment and grief — do you get exasperated that the camera records, with plodding bovine stolidity, the fixing of a sandwich?
Most importantly: Are you going to leave in a huff of righteous indignation about torture porn? Or are you going to sit there to make sure every blow draws blood? Rest assured, it will. By withholding the worst we can imagine, yet finding ways to deliver worse, Haneke rigs the movie into a weapon against its audience. Like the infected porn that destroys perverts in Cronenberg's Videodrome, Funny Games means to kill our pleasure in the very thing we theoretically paid to see: zipless, guilt-free, morally untroubled mayhem.
That mission makes Funny Games an easy movie to despise, but an impossible one to shake. The ultimate irony is that Haneke is very, very good at the genre he appears to hate: His anti-suspense measures prove far more upsetting than the usual thriller gear-grinding, which is why thrill junkies are already salivating over the movie's opening day, eager to watch Haneke launch his assault upon an unsuspecting megaplex audience. I might even show up myself, just to see the suckers flinch. That's entertainment.