I completely understand the appeal of stories set in the aftermath of apocalyptic events. Whether with movies, books, TV shows, or what have you, people jump on any opportunity to fantasize about a world without rules, to picture society stripped of all pretense and imagine how they’d survive in the wake of its collapse. The premise conjures a liberating rush that can be really something, but for yours truly, the meat of tales revolving around the end times tends to lie within the process of getting to that point, rather than when things have long since gone kablooey. Case and point, 2003’s Time of the Wolf, in which art house icon and unlikely Twitter parody target Michael Haneke shares his view of how mankind might react as decency and decorum crumble around it. By supplying the audience with the bare minimum of exposition (or, depending on how you look at it, none at all), Haneke leaves them as lost as his characters and grasping for some semblance of order while such concepts are swiftly becoming distant memories. Such ambiguity doesn’t always work in Time of the Wolf‘s favor, yet what the film does accomplish on the little it gives itself to work with is nothing to turn your nose up at, either.
In the not-too-distant future, an unknown crisis has gripped France — and quite possibly the planet, too. Livestock are dying off in droves, clean water has become increasingly scarce, and those who haven’t succumbed to some disease or another are hell-bent on protecting what little they have left. Unfortunately, Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) hasn’t much to her name anymore, with her husband murdered and supplies stolen by squatters in what they’d hoped would be their sanctuary. Left alone to care for her children (Anaïs Demoustier and Lucas Biscombe), Anne has no choice but to press on and scrounge for whatever can keep her family as afloat as possible. Eventually, the group makes its way to an old railway station populated with other survivors, all of whom are waiting for something — be it rescue or death — to happen. But as the more grim of the options looms closer, Anne struggles to instill a sense of optimism within her kids and help them hang onto their humanity.
Time of the Wolf is the sort of movie more apt to chill you to the bone with instances of quiet coldness than with montages of leather-clad marauders or rioting in the streets. The first, incredibly disturbing scene sets the tone for the sort of receptions the Laurents will be largely greeted with, as most of the populace has become numb to compassion and dismiss any pleas for assistance that come their way. With an atmosphere so bleak, it’s natural for viewers to react with outrage, but the story finds a compelling edge with the understanding that Haneke brings to the proceedings. Yes, supremely unfair things happen to Time of the Wolf‘s protagonists, yet we’re always reminded that everyone is in the precise same boat. From the wounded Anne to the closest thing the film has to “villains,” Haneke sympathizes with virtually every character in this universe, acknowledging the horrible losses that have come to drive their current actions. This surfaces in both subtle and more overt ways, with the same applying to how he proposes his players deal with all of the heartache afoot. Nearly each of its frames possesses someone shedding tears, pleading for answers, or both, and yet the picture posits that as long as there’s at least one soul determined to push on regardless, it’s inspiration enough for others to follow suit. It isn’t always obvious, but Haneke feels more as if he’s studying this fragile balance with hope for the future, rather than acting as a cruel cinema god raining punishment for punishment’s sake down upon his own creations.
However, while it effectively communicates the kind of widespread shock such a cataclysm as the one depicted might bring about, there’s something a little underwhelming about how Time of the Wolf plays out. Numerous scenes seem as though they belong in an apocalypse-themed Slacker spin-off, with the Laurents serving as our guides to a host of personalities and subplots that only pop up for a few brief moments at most. Even in their fleeting amounts of screen time, a nice chunk of these tangents are fascinating and heartrending, and yet the leads never quite capture our interest as fully. This isn’t to mean that the Laurents aren’t enthralling characters in the slightest, especially when the cast (the indomitable Huppert, in particular) is so clearly crushing it and selling every ounce of their anguish. But with Haneke visibly indecisive over whether to give Anne and the kids the closest to closure the flick has or treating them as fairly as anyone else, they don’t entirely click as the audience surrogates they’re meant to be. Time of the Wolf gives the impression that it would’ve been better off had it comprised itself of little moments scattered across a greater canvas of tragedy, instead of trying to highlight a few certain figures at the same time and come across distracted in the process. Also, while there are no major issues with the plot storing so much of its background in the dark, we do run into the occasional spot where uncertainty just isn’t enough to go on, when but a hair more of clear prodding in the story department could’ve improved the narrative’s sense of progression.
Still, Time of the Wolf displays more tact and craft than those big-screen bummers content to cruise by on autopilot. Other flicks have smeared sadness across the screen and left it at that, but as downplayed as Haneke’s approach can be, he makes an effort to do something constructive with his tour of duty in the trenches of misery. Though it doesn’t entirely stick the landing, Time of the Wolf has plenty of thought-provoking ideas and powerful imagery to go around anyway.