Michael Haneke's 1997 "Funny Games" always seemed more like an instruction manual than a thriller, with the famously dyspeptic Austrian auteur hesitantly going through the genre motions only to teach us something he feels we really ought to learn. Now, as if to put all doubts of his intentional didacticism to rest, Haneke has returned to the scene of his crime (against art?) for his first English-language film, a stringent remake that, in theory at least, takes the guise of the sort of Hollywood product he always intended to deconstruct. The implication is that those who most needed this movie medicine (namely us mindless drones known as Americans) didn't swallow the first time, so perhaps now, unencumbered by nattering subtitles and unfamiliar European faces, we will unwittingly flock to the multiplex for a punishing lesson in audience humility and media critique posing as a home-invasion suspenser.
The problem is that even if one fell for Haneke's limp tsk-tsking the first time around, ten years later his nasty little games of viewer barbarism seem musty, even quaint. What's worse, the entire project suffers from the gall Haneke shows in not only remaking his own film for the "edification" of a wider audience, but in trusting his own original vision so fundamentally and without question that he has chosen not to append or alter it in any significant way.
This speaks to an astonishing artistic hubris, but also of Haneke's refusal to engage with his own work and legacy; one would hope at this point in his career, especially after the refinement of his craft in films such as "Code Unknown" and "Cache," that Haneke would want to slash this old canvas with a razor. Instead, he offers it up again, like a paper written in freshman colloquium, without changing the text. (He'll undoubtedly get a free pass for his own carbon copy while Gus Van Sant's problematic but more artistically honest "Psycho" remake will continue to be trounced for daring to plunder hallowed work. The latter spied quizzically at its own creation and process; Haneke asks no questions of himself, positioned immutable as moral taskmaster.)
Naturally the film has altered inasmuch as it features a new cast, this time of reliable name actors, being put through the psychological ringer. Here, it's Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the basically anonymous, white married couple being mentally and physically tortured, along with their young, blond (natch) son, in their Long Island summer home, at the hands of Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett's unnamed gruesome twosome, who, as in the original, wear immaculate golf whites and disconcertingly polite smiles as they enact their terrible deeds upon the family (or more palpably, us).
To give credit where it's due, Haneke is masterful at setting up his horror-film scenario, at mounting tension in the initial encounters, and at establishing the space of the home (even if he does banally identify it as balefully bourgeois with its catalog pastels; as "Juno"'s Jennifer Garner would ask, "Custard or cheesecake?"). And the cast comes through--Watts, with her customary, terrific transparency; Roth, with his neutered, hangdog ordinariness; Pitt, with his measured, baby-blue calculation. If Haneke's greatest feat is simply in harnessing these actors' well-rehearsed talents for his own well-rehearsed project (we've all witnessed Watts's intense phlegmatic crying jags in "Mulholland Drive" and "21 Grams," and Roth's blood-gurgling mewling in "Reservoir Dogs"; and Haneke must have seen Pitt's narrow-eyed psychotic calm in "Murder by Numbers"), then it only magnifies this endeavor's overall fish-in-a-barrel feel.
Yet even these good-natured actors fall prey to Haneke's mind-numbing provocations, none more glaringly than Watts, who is forced to undergo her cruelest physical gauntlet (an endless single take in which she must make her way across the house, her body contorted in duct-taped bondage) clad only in sweat-and-blood soaked bra and panties -- one of the very few notable changes from the original film. Further rubbing our noses in our own prurience, or Haneke's wryly cynical way of getting viewers to keep watching? This is, after all, a film that actively encourages us to walk out, so completely does it deny traditional satisfactions and table-turning comeuppances (such as in recent "torture porn," like the "Hostel" dreck) and so often does it harbor audience-punishing conceits (like blasting, without warning, ear-splitting death metal).
For Haneke to pull the same tricks from the same worn hat implies that he thinks we need them; yet perhaps he's really the one who needs it -- in order to certify his vitality, to ensure that he leaves some sort of cultural imprint. Perhaps, then, the most fitting criticism of all is to admit the obvious: the U.S. remake of "Funny Games" will likely remain as rarefied a title as its predecessor, a naughty Netflix rental that gets its greatest word of mouth from curious teenage boys who've already worn out their copies of "Saw IV."
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]