Michael Pitt’s chilling preppy in Funny Games doesn’t look like a run-of-the-mill psychopath. With a floppy pageboy haircut, crisp white Bermuda shorts, and starched collar, the New York–based actor is more your average upper-class boy next door, which is entirely deliberate.
“Generally, when you see a man who looks like that, or someone who’s well-dressed, you have this feeling like they’re not fucked up, but that’s not true,” Pitt says on the line with the Georgia Straight from the Big Apple. “I think that makes things a little scarier.”
That’s putting it mildly. Far from a laughing matter, Funny Games (which opens Friday [March 14]) is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. In this shot-by-shot American-set remake of his 1997 Austrian film of the same name, director Michael Haneke (Caché) has two creepily polite strangers (Pitt and Brady Corbet) terrorize two parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and their young son (Devon Gearhart) in their stately seaside vacation home.
Openly critical of Hollywood movies that glamorize bloodshed, Haneke strives to show the true pain of violence without being gratuitous. Likewise, he refuses to serve up easy answers for why Pitt and Corbet’s characters do what they do. Pitt says he gave up trying to form a back story for his well-groomed sicko.
“The character didn’t open up for me until I let that go,” he says. “Giving people reasons why people do things is usually just so they can feel less uneasy about it. You try to explain why a young kid will go into a mall and shoot it up before he kills himself, and you want an explanation because you want to try to stop that behaviour, but it is what it is and there’s no explanation for it. We want to say it’s because of video games or music or war, but those acts of violence are just senseless.”
Pitt has played everyone from a suicidal Kurt Cobain type in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days to a homeless guy who takes up with a Paris Hilton wannabe in Tom DiCillo’s Delirious, and he relishes difficult roles. Among the challenges here was having to directly address the audience on occasion, a device Haneke uses to show viewers their complicity in violent entertainment. He also had to imagine his character as starring in a black comedy while the family members strove for painfully realistic tragedy. “Sometimes it was difficult when you’d see the young boy crying, not to react to that,” Pitt allows, revealing that Gearhart was occasionally removed from the set for Pitt’s one-shots.
What remains to be seen is how North American audiences will respond to Funny Games’s brutal examination of why normal, upstanding citizens turn into bloodthirsty revenge seekers when they enter a theatre.
“I make a lot of controversial films, and I find that usually half get it and half don’t—it comes with the territory,” Pitt says. “This is a very hard film to watch, but it’s done very intelligently by a really smart director with a lot of talented actors, and if that doesn’t entice people to go, then they probably should watch a different kind of movie, like, I dunno, Charlie’s Angels.”