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By now the phenomenon of a director remaking one of his own movies is hardly novel.
Alfred Hitchcock made two versions of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and Frank Capra turned “Lady for a Day” into the more lavish “Pocketful of Miracles.”
There even are cases of foreign directors helming the American remakes of their own hit movies. Francis Veber directed both the original French version of “Les Fugitifs” and the Hollywood version, “Three Fugitives,” with Nick Nolte and Martin Short.
But I’m not sure there has ever been anything comparable to the new version of “Funny Games,” in which Austrian director Michael Haneke has produced a shot-for-shot replica of his 1997 German-language movie.
Some will question whether we needed even one version of this unsavory story. No doubt Haneke would argue that the original had such a limited audience in America that a remake starring Oscar nominees Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, along with Michael Pitt, will bring the story to lots of new viewers. But does this exercise in sadism and psychological torture deserve a larger audience, or any audience at all?
That point will be argued by critics, though there’s no disputing the fact that this film, like the original, is compelling and exceptionally well acted. It probably will develop a cult following, like all of Haneke’s work.
Ann (Watts), her husband George (Roth), and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) arrive at their secluded vacation home on Long Island in the movie’s opening scene. As they are settling in, they are greeted by two polite but slightly creepy young men (Pitt, Brady Corbet), who claim to be visiting one of their neighbors and need to borrow some eggs.
The interlopers, who call themselves Paul and Peter, quickly insinuate themselves into the household, incapacitate George, and hold the family captive as they initiate a series of increasingly sadistic games. The tension mounts as Georgie and Ann try to escape, which only stokes the cruelty of their captors. Haneke keeps the most horrific violence offscreen, but that does not mute the impact of these degrading and ruthless exercises.
Viewers who hope to glean some sociological or psychological insights will be disappointed. At one point Paul gives a lengthy, completely fictitious profile of his cohort, just to mock those who seek an explanation for such violent antisocial behavior. The two boys dressed in white are meant to be evil incarnate — motiveless, unfathomable, inescapable.
The only comprehensible comment that the film makes is about itself and the role of cinema in encouraging voyeurism and tolerance for violence. (This theme also was at the heart of Haneke’s most acclaimed film, “Cache.”)
There’s an intriguing moment, identical in both the Austrian and American films, in which Paul uses a TV remote control to rewind the action we have seen and replay a different version. Even though the director might want us to contemplate the audience’s role in sanctioning violence, he can’t escape the whiff of exploitation that infects both movies.
Still, this version, like the earlier one, is skillfully executed. Roth doesn’t match the gravitas of the late Ulrich Muhe, who played the husband in the 1997 film, but he’s affecting. Watts is superb in conveying the emotional anguish of her character. Pitt demonstrates his versatility with an electrifying portrayal of the sinister, soulless Paul. The only weak link in the cast is Corbet, who was convincing in more sympathetic roles in “thirteen” and “Mysterious Skin,” but doesn’t exude enough menace as Pitt’s baby-faced accomplice.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji gives an ominous edge to the sun-dappled locations, which look remarkably like the settings in the European film. Even the music selections are virtually identical in the two films. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the picture, its few intellectual pretensions notwithstanding, is as a classy horror film with a particularly nasty edge. It’s not exactly entertainment, but it casts a poisonous spell.
FUNNY GAMES U.S.
Warner Independent Pictures
Celluloid Dreams, Halcyon Pictures, Tartan Films, X-Filme International
Screenwriter-director: Michael Haneke
Producers: Chris Coen, Hamish McAlpine, Hengameh Panahi, Christian Baute, Andro Steinborn
Executive producers: Naomi Watts, Philippe Aigle, Carole Siller, Douglas Steiner
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Co-producers: Andrea Occhipinti, Rene Bastian, Linda Moran, Adam Brightman, Jonathan Schwartz
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editor: Monika Willi
Ann: Naomi Watts
George: Tim Roth
Paul: Michael Pitt
Peter: Brady Corbet
Georgie: Devon Gearhart
Fred: Boyd Gaines
Betsy: Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Running time — 110 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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