Friday 22 August 2008

Funny Games U.S (2008)

Friday 22 August 2008
Writer & Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Naomi Watts (Ann Farber), Tim Roth (George Farber), Michael Pitt (Paul), Brady Corbet (Peter), Devon Gearhart (Georgie Farber), Boyd Gaines (Fred) & Siobhan Fallon (Betsy)

Remember when Gus Van Sant pointlessly remade Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, shot-for-shot but in colour? Psycho '98 looks comparatively sane against Austrian auteur Michael Haneke's latest: a replica of his 1997 German-language film Funny Games -- transplanted to America with English-speaking actors, but otherwise identical. Haneke says he did it because '97s Funny Games didn't make a splash in America; apparently the country most in need of his treatise on screen violence...

Funny Games U.S (as the blood-red title labels it) concerns bourgeois couple Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth) and their young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart), who arrive at a Long Island vacation home with their faithful dog. Almost immediately, Ann makes contact with two disquieting youths dressed in tennis whites: Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt). The visitors drop round asking for spare eggs, but it's not long before their true motives are revealed: a sick game of sadism and violence, revolving around a bet that the Farbers will all be dead the morning...

What follows is the film equivalent of a cat toying with a mouse; regarding the house invaders and their prey, but also director and his audience. Haneke's interested in making us squirm, by exposing our desire to see the violence and nudity so often a prerequisite of such movies. But, beyond one vivid shotgun blast (quickly "erased" from continuity), Funny Games keeps its atrocities off-camera -- intentionally lingering elsewhere, or focusing on reaction shots to the horror.

The idea is clearly designed to chastise "sick puppies" after bloody thrills. Lead villain Paul even breaks the fourth wall to address the audience over his victims' plight, or just sneer. I can understand accusations the film's a lecture repetitively bludgeoning home the same point, but I still found Funny Games entertaining, sharply observed, and a unique way to unsettle and provoke debate. It's too long, especially as a halfway respite proves short-lived and the director's God complex goes too far when a character "rewinds" the action with a remote control, to deny audience catharsis.

Naomi Watts is superb as Anne, moving from disconcerted housewife to terrorized victim with her usual skill and tender believability. It was also refreshing to see Ann become the strongest character, as you naturally expect Reservoir Dogs' Roth to fulfil that role. Roth is less successful than hoped, mainly because he's miscast as an affluent family man and spends most of the film crippled. It’s not a bad performance, by any means -- just one that pales in contrast to Watts. The two sociopaths, with their calm, calculated patter, are nicely performed by Corbet and Pitt; their detached conversations sure to have you on tenterhooks.

If you've seen the original, Funny Games U.S is prolonged déjà vu, but it's otherwise recommended if you want a different kind of film experience. Ultimately, it's didactic and pointless because everyone Haneke wants to "enlighten" (Saw and Hostel fans) won't want to see it, and those who do are probably on Haneke's wave-length already. Therefore, while he's crafted an intriguing art-house experience, it's preaching to the converted.

Warner Independent Pictures/Tartan Films
Budget: $15 million
112 minutes