Funny Games is a coolly calculated exercise in cruelty, a film so placidly ruthless that I'm still not sure if it is brilliant or an abomination.
Director Michael Haneke made his cold-blooded points a decade ago in his native German language, with an identically titled film that shocked art house audiences with its driven nihilism.
Haneke reportedly feels Americans need the same slap in the face, casting Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a well-adjusted married couple spending a week with their son at their lakefront villa.
The vacation turns dreadful when two young, well-mannered drifters (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet) arrive to borrow eggs for neighbors (whom they've already murdered) and refuse to leave. For the next 12 hours, they torment the family, betting them they'll be dead by morning.
You've never seen a more understated horror flick, with these monster-killers barely raising their voices above stern protests if a victim gets too messy or loud. They wear boating whites and matching gloves, not only to prevent leaving fingerprints but because they blend in with the swank surroundings. Their politeness is unnerving; offering empathy that won't make any difference when they feel like killing.
When a scene seems ready to explode, Haneke has an attacker break through the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience about its lust for more bloodshed and a neat resolution. He is correct, even giving us that vengeful satisfaction before literally hitting the rewind button to put Funny Games back on a merciless course.
During and immediately after a screening, I was certain that Haneke is a cinematic sadist, pandering to tastes he claims to find distasteful. Funny Games begins as a sonic irritant, continuing as a slow-paced and unnecessarily brutal anti-thriller. I absolutely hated this movie.
Time passed and Haneke's film stuck with me, like a nightmare that can't be shaken off. What Haneke is attempting became clearer yet no more tolerable. Now I hate what this movie did to me but must admire the boldly unconventional way Haneke does it.
The filmmaker wants to get under our skins, make us reconsider the entertainment many of us achieve through the pain of others. Funny Games isn't graphic or cartoon sinister like the torture porn franchises Saw and Hostel but its visceral impact is the same.
It is a film unafraid to kill off a dog and a child, the most innocent and trusting of movie characters. But it does so offscreen, taunting any morbid curiosity about what such terrible acts look like. If you feel let down, you're part of the pop culture plague that Haneke protests.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.