George and Anna and their little son, Georgie, live an existence of tasteful affluence rarely glimpsed outside of Ralph Lauren ads. They play "Name That Aria" with opera CDs as they tow their classic sailboat on the long drive to their gracious lakeside cabin. After they settle in, a bashful young man in preppie tennis whites comes to their door, introduces himself as a guest of their neighbors and asks to scrounge a few eggs.
Paul drops them, then politely insists that Anna give him a few more. He is joined by Peter, also dressed to play, also blandly pushy. The tension rises and George attempts to referee the situation. Peter takes an interest in George's golf clubs, and soon more than some eggs are broken.
"Funny Games," a bloody and provocative essay in anxiety from Austria's Michael Haneke ("Cache"), is a horror movie in the truest sense of the word. Its terrifying story of a family under siege examines movie violence with a cool, intellectual detachment that makes the consequences all the more disturbing.
With a few carefully rationed meta-narrative winks at the audience, Haneke breaks the fourth wall and implicates viewers in the unfolding savagery, asking why we find such tales of brutality entertaining. It's a distancing, artificial effect, yet after a few moments we're sucked back into the survival drama. Although we rarely see the family being victimized -- the carnage occurs offscreen -- Haneke lingers on its graphic aftermath and the characters' emotional pain. Naomi Watts, as the resourceful but terrified Anna, delivers a bravura performance. Tim Roth, cast against type as milksop George, is riveting, and Devin Gearhart as Georgie is every bit the equal of his adult costars.
The film is a shot-for-shot remake of Haneke's riveting 1997 German-language version, but the new edition suffers a bit for being late to the game. The audience-as-accomplice idea isn't as novel as it was a decade ago. Mainstream Hollywood deals with the same issue regularly, most recently in the Diane Lane potboiler "Untraceable."
Still, Haneke's deconstruction of violence as escapism has a perverse, European elegance. There is no musical score prodding our responses, the camerawork is languid, and the matter-of-fact tone, echoed by the nonchalant sadism of the interlopers played by Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, subverts our genre expectations at every turn. Even if you're already aware that violence is sickening, thank you very much, Haneke's confrontational film stirs up distressing emotions and leaves you to resolve them as best you can. Good luck. You'll need it.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186