'Funny Games': Psyche-Shattering Thriller

Funny Games is a nasty piece of work. Extreme is too mild a word. So is disgusting. This psychological thriller makes No Country for Old Men look like High School Musical 2. It's black, bleak, ugly, brutal, inflammatory and brilliantly devious.

Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a remake of his own 1997 Austrian film of the same name, isn't for everyone. I wouldn't recommend it to most of my friends. Exactly how far would you like to be pushed this evening? If your answer is, "Not really to the psyche-shattering point, thanks," stay well clear.

Funny Games isn't about violence per se, and though you'll swear horrible things are happening before your eyes, they are being pushed offscreen, making for much less explicit carnage than the average slasher movie. Yet it goes- gleefully - to places it knows it shouldn't. Many films claim to challenge the bourgeoisie while sending them the cinematic equivalent of a fruity Chardonnay; this one is, like the song that inexplicably interrupts the classical music over the opening credits, the cinematic equivalent of death metal.

I won't reveal what happens beyond the setup, in which a carefree and well-off couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and their little boy drive to their summer house for a nice little break. A couple of nice young men (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet), near lookalikes with floppy tousled hair and angel-of-the-country-club tennis whites, stop by to borrow some eggs. Then things take a turn for the inappropriate.

Haneke is an Austrian director who has made such French films as Caché, which similarly ensnared a well-to-do couple in inexplicable intrigue and made heavy use of an chillingly nonjudgmental surveillance-camera feel.

Cameras are parked in strange places for long, disturbing stretches of Funny Games. We don't see the principal actors at first; instead, the camera swoops far overhead, making the humans seem like distant objects of curiosity, playthings of more intelligent forces. So riveting is Haneke's technique that he can shock you with sights unseen or with things you think you're about to see. The single most memorable, most sickening shot in the movie is that of a golf ball rolling on the floor. Even in that case, you don't see the golf ball at first, and don't need to. The sound it makes enough to make you run screaming for the exits. This is skilled filmmaking. Funny Games is one of the most perfect horror films you'll ever see.

But mere horror is not quite the point. Haneke has a satirical point to make, or rather that he wants you to make. Funny Games is a meta-thriller that questions the assumptions behind the horror genre. Is it playing by the rules to show a child suffering? Are we being cheated of our lust for violence if we don't get to see someone being made to bleed? Can we be denied a good look at the climactic moment? One character keeps breaking the fourth wall to hint at these sorts of questions, and there is also another trick element that takes us away from the realm of the possible. So why does the film feel so shatteringly real?

Possibly it's because we, the upscale moviegoing audience, are so much like the beautiful family on the screen. Haneke has some disgusted comments to make on that, about our relationship with our baguettes and our Subzeros and our cozy entertainment choices. At one particularly awful moment, someone struggles mightily to simply turn off the NASCAR race that roars out of the TV. People, the film says, can be literally trapped by their most expensive possessions.

So the film is an acid satire of consumerism and E-Z entertainment. Facile? Predictable? Maybe, but there's a third element that Haneke brings off with aplomb. With darting, elliptical language reminiscent of Harold Pinter's, Haneke skewers the language styles of the rich and careless, the light hostility baked inside softly nonjudgmental words like "appropriate," the way "sorry" and "nice" can meant not particularly sorry and really not nice at all. Underneath such polite words Haneke finds flaming pits of suffering.

Funny Games

Directed by Michael Haneke

Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet

3.5 stars/ 4

112 minutes/Rated R

Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com