Michael Haneke’s nearly shot-for-shot English-language remake of his 1997 Austrian thriller Funny Games has to be one of the most perverse experiments in cinema history—more so even than Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, which at least had the advantage of updating a film that people consider fondly. Haneke’s film, by contrast, doesn’t play the audience like a piano so much as rap its fingers for touching the keys; his tone is deliberately aggressive, confrontational, and scolding, and many of the critics, festival-goers, and arthouse audiences who saw Funny Games in ‘97 responded with equivalent outrage and contempt. A chilly and extraordinarily controlled treatise on film violence, Funny Games punishes the audience for its casual bloodlust by giving it all the sickening torture and mayhem it could possibly desire. Neat trick, that.
Leaving aside the “whys” for a moment, Haneke (Caché, The Piano Teacher) has captured lightning in a bottle once again; even with a new cast, a new language, and a decade’s distance from the original, the film’s hostile brilliance has not been muted by this uncanny facsimile. The home invasion premise is simple and deliberately banal: A bourgeois family of three—Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are husband and wife, and Devin Gearhart plays their preteen son—travel to a lakeside summer home for vacation. Two polite young men in white gloves, played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, infiltrate their house and proceed to torture them through a series of “games” that are about as much fun as Anton Chigurh’s coin-flips.
So why did Haneke remake his perfectly nasty thriller in English? And why now? Haneke always intended Funny Games as a rebuke to American films specifically, since Hollywood is the primary purveyor of violence-as-entertainment worldwide, and he now has a chance to insult them in much larger numbers. And what could be a timelier theme in our post-9/11 world than Americans complicit in torture? Or a family made more vulnerable by its excessive security measures? While it wouldn’t be unfair to tag Haneke as a sadist condemning sadism, his rigorous and harrowing use of offscreen violence keeps the hypocrisy to a minimum. Funny Games feeds off of hatred like a monster, and as it storms American theaters, it stands to generate enough ill will to light up the Vegas strip.