Vindictive. Exploitive. Malicious. Audacious. Psychotic. Neurotic. Subversive. Oppressive. Impressive. Disturbing. Outstanding?…Perhaps. Pointless?….Perhaps. For esoteric and darring director Michael Haneke’s American based revamp of his own cult-classic does pack a punch, but why remake our own film? Why not. Another question, though- how does a violent film with no on-screen violence obtain an 18 certificate in this day and age? Answer- through a strong, sadistic and sustained use of uncompromising threat and humiliation. And bloody strong performances.
The story? Identical to the original- a well-heeled family of three’s reside to their holiday home takes a turn for the worse when they’re taken hostage by two well-mannered lunatics who proceed to maim and toy with their dignity and lives. Their motives? Non-existent. “Why are you doing this!?”-“Why not?” It’s all in the name of “entertainment” and “plausible plot development” as Paul/Jerry/Butthead (Michael Pitt) so satirically states in one of his numerous direct camera convos.
The rules, then, of Haneke’s not-so-funny game are often bent to the extent that they evoke confusion, participation and questions as to whether the world the German director has crafted is based on fantasy or reality, fact or fiction. Discussions between the two nutjobs regarding parallel universes appear to offer a glimmer of reason, and a certain use of a surreal spool back technique three-quarters of the way through the film will leave you wondering whether you should laugh or cry. Either way, Haneke’s resourceful approach to a seemingly simple tale alienates the diegetic world in which it is contained. You don’t have to be a fan of independent and/or experimental film-making to view Funny Games U.S through a set of compulsive eyes, though. Despite the 180 degree rule breaks, prolonged stationary shots, direct camera addresses (“What do you think? Think they stand a chance?”) and sky plus stunts, the film itself is compelling and everything the likes of Hostel, Saw and every other mindless torture flick of past and present wanted or wants to be.
The eccentricity kicks in from the opening scene: a Shining-esque high-angle tracking shot of the family car as it crawls along a long and winding country road. As soon as the family’s “game” of guessing the name of the classical tune is interrupted by an assault of non-diegetic heavy metal music, accompanied by the film’s title scrawled across the screen in red- you know you’re in for something different. It’s not everyday you get to see two of Hollywood’s more recognisable stars (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) playing seemingly expendable characters. But they do so with such conviction and authenticity. Roth is superb, Watts better, but it’s Michael Pitt that owns all- calm, calculated and provocatively unsettling. Pitt delivers a polished performance of a knowingly ill-famed tormentor that deserves to be ranked amidst the likes of Misery‘s Annie Wilkes, Se7en‘s John Doe and Hannibal Lecter himself.
There is considerably little mainstream spectators will be able to relate to when compared to modern day psychological horrors. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Because Funny Games U.S is an engaging yet eccentric all-round experience. Some may even go as far as saying that it’s the kind of film Kubrick would’ve made if he’d still been alive. Imagine, if you will, Hard Candy by the way of A Clockwork Orange. Only with a dash of Cape Fear and a semi-surreal, nom de plume psychotic edge. The result? one of the better films of 2008.
Funny Games (2008), directed by Michael Haneke, is released on blu-ray disc and DVD by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment, Certificate 18. Viewers may wish to read the extended consumer advice on the film, available at www.bbfc.co.uk, before decided to watch.
Editorial correction: An edited version of this article was originally published in the The Edge magazine with Barnaby Walter erroneous listed as the author. This was an error, and the film section of The Edge apologises to writer Jack Harding for the mistake.