In this shot-by-shot remake of Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film by the same title, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Ann and George Farber, a couple headed to their summer home with their young son Georgie and their golden retriever Lucky. All is well until Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), two young men who seemed to be staying with the family next door, appear at the house asking to borrow a few eggs. The two men refuse to leave the Farbers’ home, and throughout the next twelve hours torture the family with a series of violent “games”.
From what I can tell, this is not your ordinary horror film. Almost all of the violence occurs off camera, a choice which is relieving and tasteful, but also eerie in its own way. Often there will be a scream or a cry of pain, and the camera does not even turn to acknowledge what has happened. Sounds of violence become as commonplace as the sound of a television on in the background.
The film also does not use any sort of score, except for a jarring screamo metal song in the beginning and end credits. This is impressive because most horror films rely heavily on music to evoke fear or suspense in the viewer. The effect is that everything feels horrifyingly true-to-life, and we feel almost as though we are in the house with the characters.
This sensation of being pulled into the story is heightened in the several points when Paul actually breaks the fourth wall and turns to the camera. The first time he does it—as he is leading Ann around the driveway in a sick game of hot-and-cold—he glances over his shoulder and smirks at us. It’s a quick moment, and it’s terrifying. Did he just look at us? Later, when Paul is proposing a bet with the family, he turns and says to the camera, “I mean, what do you think? You think they stand a chance? Well, you’re on their side, aren’t you. Who are you betting on, hmm?”
This breaking of the fourth wall brings up the unsettling question of the role that we play in this violent story. Paul posits that we are “on their side”—that we are rooting for the Farbers. And yet, later, while removing Ann’s gag, he says to her, “It’s boring when the mute suffer. We want to entertain our audience, right?” And indeed, why are we watching this film if not to be entertained by two men torturing an innocent family? Who are we really rooting for?
Kudos to Pitt and Corbett—Pitt especially. Their performances really blew me away. They are such unlikely and terrifying villains: handsome (although Peter’s hair looks distinctly unwashed) and young, clean-cut and pulled together, with gentle speaking voices and calm demeanors. They seem wealthy and educated. They are polite, friendly, interested in golf. Throughout the film, this sense of sophistication, control, and politeness is never dropped.
The two men are dressed almost completely in white, including white gloves, and they are often surrounded by white. When Peter first appears at the Farbers’ house, his face is obscured by the screen door, blanched by the angle of the sunlight, so that only his voice can be heard. The scene in which the dynamic between the two men and the family turns from pleasant to violent takes place in the Farbers’ spotless white foyer, and the two men almost blend into the walls. The confrontation between Paul and Georgie also takes place in a white hallway.
The two men have a distinct lack of background. Paul tells the family several stories about Peter’s past, each time undercutting the last story and presenting them with a new, entirely different one. We have no sense of where the two men came from, or how they came to be in this vacation neighborhood. Paul does not even consistently call his companion Peter, but often refers to him as Tom, sometimes even in the same line. “This is Peter. Come here, Tom, where are your manners? Shake the man’s hand.” Paul and Peter’s association with whiteness, then, connects to that utter blankness. They have no true identities, and there is an inhuman cleanliness and an emptiness about them.
The impressive performances all around, as well as some really nuanced camerawork by Haneke, make this film both engaging and surprisingly intellectually stimulating. It is artful even while being horrifying and sick. It also raises the dark question of what we consider entertainment today, the use of the word “games” being particularly noteworthy. The ride is perhaps not as rocky as other horror movies, but the unsettling feeling you will have for hours afterwards should not be underestimated!