"Why are you doing this to us?"
asks Tim Roth's housebound hostage. "Why not?" says his tormentor. Why not indeed? Michael Haneke certainly needs no further excuse to repackage his 1997 thriller for American audiences - it is, after all, the audience the movie was originally aimed at. Shot in a near identical fashion and boasting the Austrian director's first English language script, Funny Games U.S. eschews the gloss and razzmatazz that usually come with remake territory and delivers a psychological thriller that's just as distressing to watch as the original, delivering a message to its audience that resonates even louder than it did over a decade ago.
The Farbers, an upper-class family with funds to spare, decide to visit their holiday home for a week; there's wife Anne (Watts), husband George (Roth), son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and dog Lucky (not so much). Upon arriving at their huge, gated summer house, they soon meet Paul (Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), two nice young men from the neighbourhood who pop round to borrow some eggs but soon outstay their welcome. Wielding George's golf clubs as weapons, the pair of polite sociopaths hold the Farbers hostage in their own home, subjecting them to a series of tortuous and pointless 'games' and forcing them to dance to their demented tune.
This is no torture porn adventure - far from it. Haneke is commenting on violence in the media and audiences' insatiable appetite for such bloodlust. There's no need to read between the lines - Pitt's character frequently turns to camera and comments on proceedings, almost chastising us for witnessing his devilish antics. "Why don't you just kill us?" whimpers Watts defeated wife, crumpled and defeated. "You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment," comes the telling reply. Peter and Paul's only reason for dishing out such brutal punishment is because their director is telling them to, and because we're willing to watch. Viewers therefore become voyeurs, lab rats in a twisted experiment. "You probably want them to win," Peter says, scolding us with a knowing smile. This is their movie, and they know the ending: unfortunately for us, the relationship between audience and character only works one way.
Like he did in Hidden and the original Funny Games, Haneke expertly builds tension with lingering, static scenes, sometimes lasting ten minutes at a time. Aside from the opening and closing blasts of discordant thrash metal, there's no score to rely on for direction - except for dialogue, all you'll hear is the crickets chirruping outside and the audience uncomfortably squirming in their seats (this is not a film for the noisy nacho lover). All violence - and there's plenty dished out - occurs off screen, almost as a matter of course, but it's the threat of it that really gets under your skin, the protagonists left snivelling, snotty and emotionally raped. Haneke is torturing the audience just like he's torturing his characters - one gut-wrenching twist in the last reel is just a final lash of the whip.
Each twist of the knife is felt, not only because of the malice with which the director does the twisting, but because of the effectiveness of the cast being cut. Watts is already Hollywood's go-to gal for the distressed modern woman (see 21 Grams
etc.) but she really digs deep here, beaten from post to post and stripped both physically and mentally until she's a shivering, broken wreck. Conversely, Pitt is outstanding as her reptilian captor, as eloquent and well-read as Hannibal Lecter but with the cold, detached manner of Patrick Bateman. Corbet is equally good as Pitt's ever-hungry sidekick, as is Gearhart as the family son; only Roth disappoints in an emasculated role that, in truth, is written as fairly impotent from the start.
Funny Games U.S. is certainly not for Hostel lovers and perhaps a little too blunt for the arthouse crowd, plus those that have seen the original may feel a little cheated by Haneke's strict play-by-play re-enactment. Those that are coming in fresh, however - assuming they're expecting something a little more cerebral than Jigsaw's ironic tricks and traps - should appreciate a well-crafted psychological thriller that's pleasantly unpredictable and clinically realised. The message may be delivered with sledgehammer-like subtlety and sometimes it feels like Haneke has flat out contempt for his viewing public, but hey, you can't blame the guy. For an audience that willingly hands over fistfuls of cash to see men and women savagely tortured in the name of entertainment, Funny Games U.S. is just the director giving the people what they want. Enjoy. Ali