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Funny Games

Cruel Intentions

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to subject themselves to the harrowing brutality of Funny Games, but give German-born filmmaker Michael Haneke his due -- his movie is shockingly effective in its depiction of a well-to-do family paralyzed by a terrifying home invasion. What he hoped to accomplish is anyone’s guess: Funny Games is a scene-for-scene U.S. remake of Haneke’s own decade-old film set in Austria. Nothing is lost in translation, even if Haneke’s occasional "Beavis and Butt-head" references now seem dated, and perhaps that is some sort of perverse achievement. Ten years later, abject cruelty still resonates.

Clearly, Haneke is daring us to turn away, confident that our voyeuristic fascination with violence will trump our revulsion. And it’s hard to argue. Funny Games is at once repellent and hypnotically absorbing, and not simply because of Michael Pitt’s terrifying performance as a serial killer styled, one suspects, after Alex, the Beethoven-obsessed sadist from A Clockwork Orange. It plays on media-fueled suburban paranoia with manipulative ease, thrusting us into a waking nightmare ripped from the headlines.

That doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch. When Paul (Pitt, of The Dreamers) and Peter (Brady Corbet) first enter the countryside summerhouse of their latest victims, their mockingly polite conversation is as transparent as their intentions. They say “please” and “thank you” as if mocking the good manners their hosts have come to expect, and before long their hollow posturing gives way to naked hostility. That’s hardly a shock -- we know what’s coming, we just don’t know how or when.

All semblance of civility is annihilated with one swing of a golf club, as Peter breaks character just long enough to reveal himself as a predatory sociopath in love with the creation of fear. He apologizes, of course, but the damage is done. George (Tim Roth) is left writhing on the floor, clutching his shattered knee and helpless to protect Ann (Naomi Watts) and 10-year-old Georgie (Devon Gearhart) from the drawn-out torture awaiting them.

If that makes Funny Games sound anything like Saw or Hostel, which eagerly rewarded audiences with the graphic dismemberment they knew to expect, think again. Haneke is less interested in on-screen mutilation than in the suggestion of violence, and his restraint is far more affecting. He never attempts to explain Peter and Paul’s bloodlust – they are monsters, plain and simple, giggling their way from one victim to the next. Their very existence is grotesque, but entirely natural in the bleak, remorseless world Haneke envisions. Is it a world any rational soul would care to visit? Surely not, but it’s hard to forget.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars