You see Michael Haneke is the director of both films, one made in Austria in 1997, and the other due for release this year which received a full Hollywood treatment including big name stars. I was lucky enough to see the film at the Glasgow Film Festival, and was surprised at what I experienced.
The plot of the film is very simple, a family arrive at their vacation home and on the first day are visited by two young men who take them hostage and terrorise them, betting them that they won't be alive by the morning. That, is pretty much it for the plot, however don't think that's all there is for the film, and don't start brandishing your uneducated "torture porn" labels here. For this film has something else to say, something relevant and very positive.
The opening titles of the film hit you hard and fill you with confusion because it's within these opening sequences that the film-makers begin their exercise in making you feel uncomfortable. It begins with the soft, slow opening that is suddenly interrupted with the blaring and screaming music, a totally unsubtle trick as the change is incredibly in your face and at odds with the visuals, but it does start making you feel uncomfortable from the outset.
The other thing you notice about the opening sequences is the bad dubbing. Now I have to caveat that with the possibility that this might not be a completed print - something that would be supported by the distinct lack of opening titles as well as a couple of harsh edits which I'll mention later on - and there could be some polishing before a cinematic release. However if there's not then this is some incredibly bad dubbing and editing of dialogue.
As we watch the family driving along we hear from the two parents talking in the car and there are huge pauses between their lines and it seems forced and didn't flow as a normal conversation would, again perhaps that was the intention to unnerve and offset the audience from the beginning, but with this "normal" dialogue it didn't feel at all right.
Early on there's a great scene that uses much more subtle and dramatic elements to put a feeling of unease in the audience, and it works really well. The shot of the neighbours playing golf in the distance seen from the family's car is wonderfully created and uses furtive glances, movements and positioning of characters to spark a feeling of something not quite right. There's no exploration of this, it just moves on, and it's all the better for it. However then comes the follow up dialogue from the parents who seem to overly draw attention to the behaviour of the neighbours. Once again it's a pretty subtle moment followed up by unsubtle shouting and finger pointing that seems very at odds. It's almost as though the original scene wasn't deemed enough to explain to the audience so it's followed up with a very blatant sign.
It doesn't end here, later on we're treated to one of the most overly Hollywood moments of the film, where a long and painful shot of a knife being left behind and slipping into cover holds a big glowing neon sign for later. It's another moment that stands out from the film and just seems at odds with the rest of the film, and one that doesn't really delivery anything.
However, you can see that there's a reason that this one is here, we're supposed to see this big Hollywood moment, we're being led by the nose at this point and it's part of the plan for us, the audience.
There's a lot of these stranger moments that seem to be toying with us, one of the biggest and most effective is the act of the leader of the two intruders talking to the camera, to the audience. It's an excellent vehicle to get the audience involved in the film and pull them in from being the viewer and the voyeur to being an active participant, and that does happen.
One of the later examples of this has perhaps the strongest effect on the audience, it's perhaps the biggest moment of self-realisation for the viewer and the hardest hitting. Suddenly we have the choices and are pulled right into the heart of the story, except we're no longer watching it, we're part of it.
It's around this time that we begin to realise that we're being toyed with and we're the ones being tortured, not the characters in the film. This is perhaps the cleverest aspect of the film, the ability to pull you right into the actions of the characters and not just observe or feel you're part of the story, but as an active participant, and that understanding stays with you throughout the rest of the film.
It's interesting to note that despite the fact that this film is about the torture and murder of innocent people, there's next to no violence or blood on screen. Despite the weight and power of the film there's actually no real requirement to resort to center stage violence and gore to shock the audience, the power comes through the scripting, directing and editing, and it managed to produce more emotional fear and dread than most horrors I've seen these days.
Going back to the editing for a moment I feel I have to mention a couple of scenes that really felt worse for the way they were edited, and again this could be down to the print we received, although I doubt that there is still editing to be done before its release.
The first sees the second of the young men deliver a superb line about entertainment, a line that could have packed more of a punch if the film hadn't immediately cut away after he said it, and I mean immediately. It's so fast you almost wonder if you heard it right in the first place. Here it felt like a few moments of more on the character would have helped the line come through harder.
The other is while the lead young man is making a sandwich in the kitchen and there's a whole host of action happening in the other room. Now my issue is not with the fact that the camera stays away with the action during a dramatic segment - in No Country for Old Men (Filmstalker review) perhaps, but not here - it's with the leap in time at the end of the sequence. As the action calms in the other room we're ripped forward in time and you're suddenly playing catch up with what's happened.
I did feel this was another overly harsh and difficult to follow edit, and if it had flowed a little more then the effect of the subsequent scene would have been even more powerful.
From this point of the film onwards, when the husband and wife find themselves alone, the actions of the characters seem strangely unnatural. They are painfully slow and their decision process is hugely frustrating to watch. They keep making choices that appear to be out of sorts with the situation they're in and the moments and actions are incredibly drawn out.
However painful this is to watch I do have a feeling that this might have once again been made deliberately in order to frustrate the audience and push against the expectations of convention - I shan't expand on that otherwise I'd be giving away some of the plot, but it's fair to say that the film-makers orchestrate events in order to manipulate our expectations and illicit specific reactions from us, and they do it well.
I'll stop the discussion of the film from here on as any more will risk giving away far too much. Suffice to say that this manipulation continues and the film-makers keep managing to turn the tables on the audience and make us feel responsible and guilty for the on screen actions, and that's the power of this film.
As for the acting, the performances are great all round with Michael Pitt, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth giving outstanding performances. However for me it was Tim Roth that stole the show with a single scene. The camera stays on his face while he begins to realise what is about to happen to his wife, and the emotional change he goes through is so tangible and real it's amazing.
The film is extremely clever at taking you away from the clichés and placing the weight of the decisions and actions of the young instigators on you, the audience. I can't stress how superbly done that is, that the film-makers manage to pull you into the story and make you feel accountable, and all backed with the most powerful of performances.
The use of talking to the camera has perhaps never been so perfectly executed as it is in this film, and the manipulation of the viewer is both uncomfortable and incredibly satisfying at the same time.
That said there are a few very unsubtle moments which stand at odds with the rest of the cleverly constructed film, and there are a few painfully slow moments which grate against the flow of the film.
In the end we realise that we are the voyeurs and the instigators, we are the ones being tortured, and that this is all for us and for our benefit. As one of the characters says in the film, if you'll allow me to improperly quote, "do we want it to stop now, or do we want an ending with a logical plot progression?".