Given that Michael Haneke has been making the same movie for his entire career, it’s fitting that his latest is a shot-for-shot English-language redo of his 1997 meta-shocker Funny Games (technically dubbed Funny Games U.S.). Consequently, there’s nothing new here for the initiated, as the Austrian director’s stateside debut is a thoroughly unnecessary photocopy of its expectation-upending predecessor, from its cruel punishment of the bourgeois (Haneke’s favorite whipping post), to its self-conscious references to its own artificiality, to its tsk-tsk commentary on depictions of – and audience hunger for – cinematic violence. At their lakeside vacation home, wealthy Anna (Naomi Watts), husband George (Tim Roth), and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are tormented by two polite, nondescript intruders in white shirts and gloves (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who call each other pop culture-relevant names (Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead) and like to tell their captors things like “You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.” The two villains want to play head games with their prisoners before killing them, while Haneke wants to play an elaborate deconstructionist game, the main objective being to condemn viewers for seeking thrills, excitement, pleasure from the sight of horrific death and reassuring, cathartic heroism.
He does this by denying a view on his story’s murders (and Watts’ nude body) and – in an infamous last-act twist – by allowing Pitt to “rewind” the story so that Anna’s revenge is annulled. Yet such stunts don’t change the proceedings’ belligerently hectoring tone, nor the impression that Haneke is a hypocrite who wants to censure anyone who likes fictionalized cruelty but nonetheless takes great pleasure in punishing his innocent upper-class protagonists for being too comfortable and happy in their luxurious, behind-driveway-gates lives. The image of a blood-splattered TV showing NASCAR (see? Americans love death-as-sport!) and a final discussion in which Pitt and Corbet state that film and reality are indistinguishable (because both can be seen) prove further articulations of the auteur’s tired concerns, while Pitt occasionally breaks the fourth wall as a means of implicating artists and consumers for the proliferation of frivolous filmic mayhem. Watts delivers as wrenching a performance as the lecture-before-drama material will allow, especially during a protracted take in a chaotic living room that also confirms Haneke’s icy technical prowess. But as the opening God’s Eye view of the victims’ car elucidates, Anna and company aren’t characters so much as just pawns in the director’s moralizing, grandstanding critique. Call him the high priest of Finger-Wagging Cinema.