Dir: Michael Haneke. US.111mins
Michael Haneke's American remake of his 1997 Austrian acclaimed arthouse hit Funny Games, Funny Games US retains the emotional intensity, visceral impact and gripping hold of the original. Thefiercely-intelligent thriller about a family of three held hostage and tortured in their vacation home by two young psychopathsismasterfully-controlled, provoking unsettling questions about the audience's relationship to screen violence.
In a highly unusual step for a US version of European material - although perhaps typical of Haneke's uncompromising approach - very little of substance has changed.
In fact for long sequences this is a shot-by-shot remake, a decision that wisely preserves, and in some cases intensifies, the power of the 1997 movie.
Funny Games US has potential to exceed the returns of Hidden (Cache), Haneke's best performing film so far.
Like that 2005 film, the movie can be marketed as much as a thriller (although it simultaneously obeys and subverts genre rules) as an auteur movie, widening appeal beyong Haneke's arthouse following.
Positive critical coverage - which helped Hidden's box-office performance - will also boost the film's prospects, and its distributors will be watching carefully the reviews from its US premiere at Sundance.
The English-speaking cast removes the obstacle of subtitles to audiences in America, where the 1997 film performed disappointingly (and the new version is set to open in March). Above all the involvement of Naomi Watts, prominently displayed in movie's US poster campaign, ensures a high profile for Funny Games US.
With its star cast, Funny Games US will surely outperform the arthouse returns of the original and at least match the returns of Haneke's Hidden (W'wide: $16.2; US: $3.6m; UK: $2.7m; Fr: $3m; Ger: $1,2m).
Credited as one of the producers, star Naomi Watts will increase coverage for the film, and distributors will be cheered by the example of Eastern Promises, another film she featured in about violence made by an auteur director (W'wide: $49.5m; US: $17.2m; UK: $4.1m; Ger: $2.6m; Fr: $6.3m).
Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Anna and George, a prosperous couple driving on to a large lakeside vacation home in upstate New York with their young son Georgie.
Having barely unpacked, they are visited by two young men (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet), dressed in bland sporting gear and sinister white cotton gloves.
Having unnerved Anna and George with their strange behaviour, the visitors (credited as Paul and Peter, although Peter's name changes throughout) become suddenly violent, breaking George's leg with a golf club, then announcing to the captive family their intention to kill them in the next 12 hours.
The rest of the film depicts with an unblinking, almost dispassionate clarity, Paul and Peter's physical and psychological abuse of the family. With the boys' deadline ever looming, Funny Games US is a work of almost unbearable tension and menace.
Haneke delivers moments of taut, precision-crafted suspense: a particularly nerve-wracking sequence sees Georgie escape into the eerily quiet interior of their neighbour's house, pursued by the preternaturally calm Paul, a set-piece of nightmarish intensity that puts most contemporary horror films to shame.
But Haneke expertly and repeatedly manipulates audiences emotions to subvert and question the pleasures that such genres as the horror and thriller take in depicting screen violence.
Here, the brutality is senseless, arbitrary, and disregards question of innocence or culpability. On few occasions Paul (superbly played by Michael Pitt) directly addresses the audience, unsettling our expectations of the events on screen, boldly breaking the fourth wall to suggest how our reactions to violence are now thoroughly conditioned by its film and television representation.
With cinema's shock value arguably greater than 10 years ago - through the emergence of arthouse provocateurs like Miike Takeshi and Gasper Noe and the development of mini-genres like the torture porn of Hostel in mainstream horror - there was a danger that the impact of the new Funny Games would be diminished.
In fact, with the exception of a memorable moment of cathartic bloodletting (tellingly a fantasy scene) the violence is all off screen. It is through the emotional consequences of Paul and Peter's actions that the film makes its exacting demands on viewers.
Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are outstanding, reacting to the developing horror with a raw bewilderment. Watts' traumatised reaction to Peter's first use of the shotgun - depicted by Haneke, as in the original, in a harrowing extended single-take - is among the best work she's done.
Devon Gearheat, playing Georgie, is especially effective, bringing a keening vulnerability which Paul and Peter mercilessly exploit.
Haneke has transferred the action to the US almost faultlessly (only the 'Beavis and Butthead' nicknames Peter and Paul give one another date the film): the leafy countryside of upstate New York is the perfect location for the roomy, upmarket vacation houses in which the action takes place - and which Haneke has claimed didn't really have an equivalent in Austria.
And while Haneke proves incredibly faithful to this source material in most regards, the opportunity of revisiting the film has allowed for some minor tweaks: the grim suspense accompanying Anna's search for the corpse of the family dog, just killed by Paul, is, for instance, drawn out even more in this new version.
And the opening aerial shot of Anna and George's car driving to their holiday home has a smoothness and fluidity the original lacked, introducing us to the husband and wife like lab rats trapped in a maze, unknowingly advancing towards a lethal experiment.
Significantly Haneke's questioning attitude towards onscreen violence has more resonance in the context of a mainstream US thriller, which this film superficially resembles.
In this regard the film's slick production values are to its advantage. Darius Khondi's photography of the Anna and George's house ranges from a merciless, evenly-lit brightness to the noir-ish, shadowy darkness (recalling his work on David Fincher's Panic Room). Kevin Thompson's production design is also impressive, respecting the layout of Christoph Kanter's original set while adapting it for an American idiom.
Celluloid Dreams (Fr)
Halcyon Pictures (UK)
Tartan Films (UK)
X-Filme International (Ger)
Lucky Red (It)
Belladonna Ltd (US)
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