Funny Games U.S. Review
There is nothing new in foreign language films being remade in America, but what makes Funny Games U.S. different is that it has been remade by the original director, using the original script and even duplicating camera angles and set ups. So the first question has to be “what was the point?” Gus van Sant bore the brunt of a critical backlash when he did the same with Psycho, so why has Michael Haneke risked his reputation on such a risky venture. The most obvious answer would be for the money, but Haneke has never been the kind of director to chase the almighty dollar, so we are left with the simple reason that he wanted his film to reach a wider audience. In interviews he has always said that he saw the original story as a very American one and that he sees the use of violence as entertainment to be a very American phenomenon. It's not the most convincing argument, as a cursory trawl through European cinema, both recent and historical, will show, but with the recent popularity of so called “torture porn” (Saw, Hostel, Captivity etc) the U.S is certainly acquiring a taste for mainstream gore that is worrying more for its quality than its content.
Funny Games U.S. doesn’t deviate from its source material one bit, which makes watching it a strangely surreal experience, as though you have suddenly become fluent in a foreign language. Anna (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) are a bourgeois American couple off to spend two weeks at their house in the Hamptons. On the car journey there they play guess the opera from their extensive CD collection, as though to point out just how pretentious they are. Once they arrive at the house there is no time for scene setting as they are immediately introduced to Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett as two well spoken, incredibly polite, white glove wearing sociopaths, masquerading as friends of their neighbours. After an altercation over some eggs the two boys proceed to torture the couple, and their young son, well into the night with no apparent motive.
In the beginning we are given no real evidence, but the implication is clear that the two boys have already killed their neighbours and will do the same to Anna and George and no amount of pleading or negotiating will change the outcome of their night of terror. A few things mark this out from your average U.S thriller. The majority of violence in the film is psychological, indeed for the first three quarters of the movie the only weapon being used is a golf club, and there is virtually no blood with most of the extreme violence committed off camera leaving our imagination to fill in the blanks.
The antagonists are obviously as well to do as their victims. Well spoken, polite and well educated they appear to find it as hard to understand why the family won’t cooperate as the family find it hard to comprehend why it is happening to them. Then there is the breaking of the fourth wall. At certain points in the film Michael Pitt addresses the camera directly, asking what we think should happen next, and who we want to live and die. It’s as though Haneke is telling us that he knows there are certain conventions in films that should be adhered to and he knows we are expecting things to pan out in a way that will leave us feeling vindicated for watching a basically good family tortured. In his biggest deceit, he has a character pick up a remote control to rewind the action. Just as we feel relief that things will end the way we have come to expect, it’s as though Haneke is looking us in the eye and saying “this is not what real life is like, there is no easy way out” and proceeds to force us to watch to the terrible conclusion.
When I saw the film it was preceded by an interview with Haneke. He said that his films are primarily an entertainment and if people want to try and analyze them that is there prerogative but he makes them with no hidden agenda, and they are not meant as satires of any current problems, social or political. That being said it’s hard not to see Funny Games U.S as a condemnation of American involvement in foreign affairs. The rich, bourgeois couple safe in their gated country house, terrorized by uninvited guests who won’t leave, until they move on to the next victims is an easy scenario to draw parallels with. But which way you see it is what makes it so fascinating. Do the family represent America, always thinking they are safe and invulnerable until outside forces destroy their idyll? An obvious reference to the events of 9/11. Or is it the other way round, with the family the foreign land and the two polite torturers representing American involvement. After all, the very first act of violence in the film is perpetrated by George. Whichever way you want to look at it, it’s still a fascinating and nerve-wracking piece of cinema which earns its 18 certificate not for the blood and guts on show but for the use of women and, especially, children as victims.
The acting is good, if a little stagey, but then the whole thing does feel a little like a stage play. In fact as a stage play, with the right cast, this could be an award winning piece of theatre. One scene stands out above all the rest, a virtually wordless 5 minutes as Roth and Watts struggle to free themselves knowing that failing to do so means certain death. With just body language, cries and moans they convey terror better than a hundred screaming girls in slasher movies
Was it worth remaking? If you’ve seen the original, probably not. But if it brings Haneke’s disturbing world to a wider audience then it was a job well done.
Funny Games U.S. is released in UK Cinemas on 4th April 2008.