Violence is the real story here: symbols of how media portrays it changes it as well as the general public's ideas about it. The story starts idyllic at a white-washed bayside peaceful summer house. Married couple George (Tim Roth) and Susanne (Naomi Watts) bring their fair-haired boy Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and sailboat out for fun and recreation. In the background their neighbors let an uninvited pushy twosome of boys named Paul and Peter (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) onto their private grounds. The adolescent guys soon show up at George and Susanne's screen door weirdly needing eggs. These villains at first seem as though they're only guilty of being inconsiderate and clumsy when Peter drops the eggs and Susanne's cell phone into a sink full of water. But the boys soon turn decidedly nastier. Killing the family dog cracking George's knees with a golf club and tying Susanne up Paul makes them a bet: that all three will be dead in 24 hours. It is one of the film's several “games ” a motif running throughout Funny Games--except they are not at all funny. We can continue our love affair with the superb Naomi Watts. She singlehandedly brings much nuanced credibility to any film she's in--from tiny quirky indies (Ellie Parker) to blockbusters (King Kong) to Funny Games an amped-up genre flick. It's hard not to feel for Susanne's plight through Watts’ expressive eyes and her flashes of intelligence. Michael Pitt (The Dreamers) and Brady Corbet (Thirteen) also deserve credit in their own right looking harmless and rigorously conformist in their all-white appearance. They use silence and awkwardness to show them to be all the more antisocial and deviant. Their criminality makes an unusual impact. Even Tim Roth who plays the half-conscious tortured husband almost as a caricature evokes sympathy. Funny Games is director Michael Haneke’s shot-by-shot American remake of his 1997 Austrian film of the same name. The suspense scenes are world-class in ratcheting up the nerves much like Stanley Kubrick does with The Shining. When Peter comes after Georgie for example the building of the boy's fear is genius and unfettered with conventions. Haneke doesn't jolt the audience with messy noise and slight-of-hand allowing the characters' pure cruelty drive the fear. Funny Games gets a little big for its britches at times especially when Haneke uses the narrative to make larger social commentaries about the media. Its relevance (and the point's clarity) seems disingenuous. In any event audiences will react differently to the comically perverse violence: some will be horrified and delighted at the film’s exploitation others will see the humor but will be hesitant to express it. Funny Games is just a one of those polarizing films.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.