It begins with eggs. Dressed in tennis whites and wearing white gloves, Peter (Brady Corbet) comes to the Farbers’ lakefront vacation home and requests four eggs. He claims to be sent by a neighbor, and Ann (Naomi Watts), polite if vaguely suspicious, lets him inside her kitchen.
The decision is, as they say, fateful. When Peter drops the first eggs and comes back for more, Ann is even less comfortable than the first time, and yet she agrees, once more, to provide the eggs. When he drops those as well — outside, off-screen — she’s less inclined to accommodate, but feels intimidated by Peter’s look-alike partner Paul (Michael Pitt). When, only a few minutes later, she makes her stand (“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I don’t want to be a part of it”), it’s too late. The players are in charge.
At this point in Funny Games U.S., Michael Haneke’s scene for scene remake of his own 1997 Austrian original, it’s plain that Ann’s mistake is irrevocable. And when her husband George (Tim Roth) and 10-year-old son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) return from preparing the family sailboat for launching, they too are lost. When the young men again refuse to leave the house, George protests, his voice rising. “Be careful old man,” Paul says. “Or I’ll break your eggs.” It’s a challenge that articulates the villains’ contempt for their victims, and more insidiously, confirms viewers’ expectations.
This is the ongoing, discomforting trick of Funny Games. Peter and Paul spend the rest of the day and night torturing their hosts, as the family alternately begs for their lives, resists their attackers, and tries desperately to escape. Both abusers and prey go through motions you’ve seen before, in grisly horror movies from Last House on the Left to in Hostel: George’s leg is smashed with his own golf club, Georgie’s head is covered with a pillowcase as his mother is forced to strip, as Paul demands to see whether she has “jelly rolls.” Throughout the ordeal, the invaders tell stories of damaged childhoods and twisted intentions. “His father’s an alcoholic, his mother, you can imagine,” Paul explains of Peter. “Truth is, he’s fucking her. Sad, but it’s true.” George sputters, “You’re disgusting. Can’t you at least watch your language in front of my son?”
His concern is entirely off-base, of course, as the child — punched, held down, and watching his distraught mother — is already enduring far worse damage than foul language. But it underscores Funny Games‘ interest in instruction, particularly directed at American audiences (hence, the remake in English, with the stars of The Ring and Pulp Fiction), who distract themselves with movie ratings based on numbers of swear words or bullets fired. George appears to miss the more pressing point, namely, as Paul says next, “None of what I said is true. He’s not white trash, he’s a spoiled little brat. Truth is, he’s a drug addict.” But that’s not true either. Every seeming explanation Paul offers is false, much like his immaculate white outfit and his name — he and Peter also call each other Tom and Jerry, and Beavis and Butt-head, cartoon names to point to their extreme artifice, again.
If the performances are obviously formal and false, they are also grueling. In part this has to do with the movie’s deliberate pacing, as the terror is rendered in long, immobile takes, shots of tear-streaked faces and bloody injuries. The abuse is surely calculated, by fictional aggressors and strings-ultra-precise filmmaker, but the acts occur just out of frame, leaving you to anticipate and imagine the worst. When Paul demands that George and Ann make a bet with him — “In 12 hours all three of you are gonna be kaput: you bet that you’re gonna be alive and we bet that you’ll be dead” — they can only gape, unable to fathom a right answer (because there is none). Scene after scene shows the debilitating effects of such emotional and physical stress, as the day wears into night and no good end appears possible.
But as much as the Farbers’ situation resembles those of previous movie victims — from Last House on the Left to Hostel — their tormentors remain disturbingly unmoved, a pair of slippery surfaces without meaning. When George asks why they don’t just kill the family now, Paul smiles, “You should not forget the importance of entertainment.” And this is, again and unsubtly, the movie’s contention, that consumers of violence are culpable. Funny Games makes viewers pay for its implied violence (rather than indulging in the dubious pleasures of “torture porn” like Saw), by showing, repeatedly, still effects rather than spurting acts: mangled bodies, bloody spatters, horrified reactions.
The film presses its point harder in another, equally explicit way. At first, Paul and Peter seem like standard movie psychos, their cherubic faces almost more chilling than lack of affect and their utter contempt for their targets. But then Paul begins to address the camera directly, asking what “you” might want to see. At one point he stops a scene that has gone “wrong” — a scene that invites audience approval, as one of the villains has been punished, at long last — grabs a TV remote and rewinds the scene in order to replay it to accommodate his own ends. Here the film lurches from regular horror into meta.
Such attention to process is not news either (Haneke made a similar point, more effectively, in Caché, and poppier versions include Scream and Unforgiven). As painful as it is to watch Ann’s face when she’s forced to strip, or her efforts to comfort her “pussy husband” as he dissolves into tears, Funny Games appears to be premised on displeasure, and in this, it recalls the feminist cinematic “experiments” of the ’70s. Indeed, its most salient questions have to do with gender and violence.
It’s not just that aggression is presumed masculine and passivity/victimization feminine, or that Ann’s resilience makes her a profoundly tragic Last Girl, according to slasher film formula. And it’s not only that Peter and Paul are conventionally femme-ish perverts, with pale faces and full lips. It’s also that the movie assumes you know all this already and shows it to you anyway. How many times does anyone need to watch the same scenario, hear the same story, or absorb the same abuse — even to the point of an exacting remake like Funny Games — before seeking an alternative?