Michael Haneke is a clever guy. I promised myself I’d never revisit his 1997 film Funny Games, yet he’s tricked me into doing just that by remaking it, shot by agonizing shot. In Funny Games U.S., the grim Austrian auteur brings the original’s hectoring scald to this side of the pond, changing the story’s location to America while keeping virtually every line, camera setup and movement exactly the same. Conceptually, the shift is clearly significant to Haneke, who has in interviews identified the subject of his critique (i.e., the use of cinematic violence for unthinking entertainment) as an essentially American one. Furthermore, there’s a certain inside-job subversion to the film’s advertising campaign, including a trailer which (unintentionally?) illustrates Haneke’s point by attempting to palm this intellectual distress-machine as a darkly comic thriller. In execution, however, the project amounts to nothing more than a stunt, and a particularly lazy and unilluminating one at that.
The plot is still The Desperate Hours rewritten by the Marquis De Sade. The opening overhead shot of the family car driving down the highway should be the first hint of the horrors ahead (Kubrickian technique doesn’t exactly convey benevolence), though Haneke rather gives the game away by cutting from the soothing classical music playing on the car radio to the ear-splitting, thrash-metal wail blaring from somewhere beyond the frame. (News flash: Haneke still prefers Mascagni to Zorn. Had he reversed his taste since the original, that would have been reason for a remake.) George (Tim Roth), Anna (Naomi Watts) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are the family in question, out for a weekend at their lakeside home and sympathetic despite the mortal sin of being upper-middle-class bourgeois. Their punishment—and the audience’s—begins with the introduction of Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), a couple of unnervingly polite jocks decked in tennis-anyone? whites. Peter’s egg-breaking fumble at the hostess’s kitchen is just the first of the “games” the men play on the family, which soon escalate to betting that by the morning none of them will be left alive.
The unspoken idea behind the remake might be that, while Funny Games remains the same, the world around it has changed. Since the original’s release, we have witnessed Kosovo, Columbine, 9/11 and Iraq, to say nothing of the box-office success of Saw and Hostel. Can people still be shocked? What hasn’t changed, unfortunately, is Haneke’s smug feeling of superiority toward his characters and audiences. The two films want to implicate viewers in the unrelenting barbarism unfolding before them on the screen, yet because of the filmmaker’s ruthless stylistic grip and elevated view of his own insights, what was meant as an open dialogue becomes a diatribe every bit as fascistic as the baby-cheeked killers. Haneke holds viewers hostage, but he also holds them guilty—our own supposed hunger for brutal thrills is somehow responsible for willing the monsters into being, and when people cheer at Anna’s shotgun blast, the film literally rewinds (cruel meta-moments abound here) to scold them for the bloodlust the filmmaker has cannily provoked. “You have to admit, you brought this on yourself,” the blond Angel of Death earnestly says to the tortured protagonists, and Haneke derisively means it: To him, this is the film we deserve.
The original Funny Games was Haneke’s worst effort, so there was hope that, returning to that territory a decade later, he might rethink the earlier film’s sophomoric shocks. No dice—Funny Games U.S. is every bit as deplorable, not just a huge step backwards for the director but also a work that casts doubts about the maturity of more recent, more humane films like The Time of the Wolf and Caché. When a filmmaker remakes one of his own works, there’s usually some kind of thematic contemplation at work; think of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair and An Affair to Remember, or Yasujirô Ozu’s Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds. Haneke, however, remains so sure about the validity of his gorge-rising tactics that his shot-by-shot retelling becomes less an experiment than an act of arrogance. Ed Gonzalez at Slant wittily acknowledged the new picture’s uselessness by reprinting his original Funny Games write-up with only the actors’ names changed; in all fairness, it should be noted that Watts invests her role with literal blood, sweat and tears, and that Haneke at least resists the most obvious joke by not casting Macaulay Culkin as one of the invaders. It’s all for naught, though, since, in either incarnation, Funny Games debases who it means to liberate.
Fernando F. Croce is a critic for Slant Magazine and the creator of the website Cinepassion.