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Weekly Alibi Twister, Anyone?

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  European filmmakers of late have displayed a talent for producing unbearably intense little thrillers (like The Vanishing and Nightwatch). Hollywood, for its part, has displayed a talent for taking these thrillers and diluting them into mediocre Hollywood products (... like The Vanishing and Nightwatch). The latest pulse-pounder to escape the continent is Austrian director Michael Haneke's Funny Games. And, like its predecessors, it's a gut-wrencher from the word "go."

The set-up here is painfully simple. A happy, contented, well-to-do family takes off for a summer vacation at an idyllic, semi-isolated lakefront. Shortly after arriving, an innocuous young man arrives at the door asking to borrow some eggs. Somehow, the young man never gets around to leaving, much to the consternation of Anna (Susanne Lothar), George (Ulrich Mühe) and their pre-teen son. Soon, another young man arrives, and the intruding duo continue to engage the family in polite, meaningless conversation despite the fact that they have grievously overstayed their welcome. Tiny elements of violence loiter on the fringes (a sharp knife here, a heavy golf club there ... and why exactly are those boys wearing gloves?) Though the threats rarely become overt, it's clear that this cheery, idyllic setting is just ripe for the cracking.

When finally pressed to leave, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch) refuse, essentially taking the family hostage in their own house. The set-up is little different than other domestic thrillers -- most notably the 1955 film noir suspenser The Desperate Hours (and its 1990 remake). The only question remains: What exactly do these intruders want? Despite the unbearably tense situation, Peter and Paul continue to exchange bland pleasantries and to apologize profusely toward their "hosts." Here, Funny Games borrows a page or two from the work of pulp crime writer Jim Thompson. Thompson's indelible 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me featured the character of Lou Ford, a Texas sheriff who -- on the surface -- tortured the residents of his tiny hometown with an unending barrage of polite, clichéd pleasantries, yet -- deep down -- harbored the calculating mind of a psychotic killer.

Over the course of one increasingly uneasy night, Peter and Paul torture their captives with a string of "funny games." Each childish prank ups the danger ante by a hair's breadth. This "cruelty as fun" theme runs throughout Funny Games. No matter how borderline brutal things become, however, our deadly duo are always friendly, contrite and constantly "justifying" their actions.

Longtime Austrian director Michael Haneke (whose work has seen little light in America) directs with all the no-holds-barred style and punked-out attitude of Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting). Though there is little in the way of actual on-screen violence, the very threat thereof is so pervasive, so tangible, that most viewers will find themselves in a constant flinch state. The pace is evenly measured, hardly breakneck; but it crawls with such inexorable tension, that it is at times unbearable. Haneke never passes up the opportunity to stick another needle of dread into his audience. Few ... make that, no thrillers in recent memory have this haunting and unsettling an effect. If there's a word beyond gut-wrenching, it's up to audiences to find it themselves and fill in the blank.

If you want to get philosophical about the whole thing, Haneke is making a commentary here on violence and the media (particularly films). Paul occasionally tosses an aside at the camera to ensure the viewers are siding with the endangered family. Once or twice, Paul offers up a vain excuse for his and Peter's behavior, but it's all a load of put-ons delivered with the occasional self-conscious wink.

Viewed in a certain light, Funny Games is a slightly more devious, infinitely more subtle version of Man Bites Dog, the morbidly funny Dutch film about a documentary crew that follows a poetry-reciting serial killer along on his deadly rounds. Funny Games knows quite well that its audience has seen infinite variations of the Reservoir Dogs/True Crime/Natural Born Killers troika. Haneke is asking us, in an underhanded way, to appraise our role as viewers. Do we sympathize with the family, or do we secretly want to see them tortured? It's a heady argument, and one that Haneke never really presses us too hard on. Few viewers will have time to ponder such questions between bouts of nail-biting and eye-covering. Reserve such debates for the after-movie coffee clutch.

Toward the end, the film throws us for an existential loop or two (how very Euro) before arriving at a finale involving a cruel, cruel trick on the part of the filmmakers. As if we haven't suffered enough.

Catch this merciless nerve-shredder now before Hollywood gets ahold of it, cuts out the "message" and casts Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in the lead roles. ... You have been warned.

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