Sunday, April 26, 2009

Unfunny Games After the Apocalpyse

After watching something like the gleefully tacky and trashy Doomsday, nothing feels overly exciting, particularly a quiet, untacky, untrashy French drama set in a realistic post apocalyptic world, where nary a mohawk or gladiator ring is to be found. Instead, Europe's favorite buzzkilling auteur Michael Haneke brings us a painfully slow story (of sorts; more below) of a joyless near-future filled with the prestige of a Very Good Film and the spirit of, I don't know, arthritic bones.

Quick Plot: A young French family arrives at their country cottage to discover that another young French family has moved in with a loaded rifle and territorial desperation. A surprising pull of the trigger widows mum Isabelle Huppert, driving her and her two children into nearly deserted villages, occasionally stopping to grab some handouts from reluctant neighbors while looking blank and sad.

We're never told what event has sent France spinning into decaying chaos--a point that is both frightening and frustrating. Much like his brilliant Cache, which left the audience with unanswered yet deeply fascinating questions, Haneke's Time of the Wolf doesn't provide much in the way of resolution or clear plot. A fourth character--a feralish boy with a murky conscience--has a dramatic entrance that doesn't develop into the family relationship you'd expect. Eventually, Huppert & Co. join more survivors at an abandoned train depot to wait for a Godotish train in conditions of misery and starvation. While there are hints of villainy in the brutish leader, racist stragglers, and a pre-InsideBeatice Dahl, Haneke avoids developing the typical conflicts or actual story. There is no huge confrontation or climactic event that point us towards salvation or destruction; instead, we simply get survival.

Imagine Cormac McCarthy's The Road without characters (and with a bicycle in place of the shopping cart) and you might come close to Time of the Wolf. It's dark and rather depressing, but also poetic and eerie. Haneke can make intriguing films and his spirit in bucking the trends and cliches of common cinema is refreshing. At the same time, it's hard to accept a film that chooses to not have a central protagonist or even basic plotline to follow.

High Points
An early scene lit entirely by a dying, then raging, fire is truly tense

The absence of any score helps feels hauntingly appropriate

Small hints of what went wrong are effectively channeled through a few disturbing images, such as a herd of cows burning in the night

Low Points
As if a French film with minimum everything by Michael Haneke needed any more help, the choice to have completely silent and black background opening credits amps up the pretentiousness before the first line is spoken

With so many characters and so few names and closeups, it's just too difficult at times to decipher who's who

Lessons Learned
Birds do not make ideal pets in any situation, much less the post apocalypse

If a gigantic disaster strikes your country but you seem to be living safely, it's best to stay put

When I was watching Time of the Wolf, I was bored and more than a bit antsy for something to happen. It doesn't. It's been a few days now, and I now have to admit that Haneke's work has stayed with me. This is probably one of the most realistic depictions of a post-apocalyptic society in recent cinema, and sadly, much of what the characters undergo is not uncommon to certain reaches of the world today, adding some timely weight to a future vision.

So. Rent, bury, or buy? I haven't had this hard a time slapping a label on a film and it makes me understand Roger Ebert's annoyance with the star system rating. Genuine film fans who like a slow burning, though provoking drama might purchase (a few DVD extras seem worth a gander). Apocalyptic afficionados can rent (or do Watch Now via Netflix). Straight horror fans should skip. Personally, I fall under all three categories and am left confused as to how I ultimately felt about the movie. It's well-made and ultimately leaves a deep impression, but the lack of strong characterization or, well, Stuff That Happens makes it hard for me to honestly say I would watch it again. Even though I know I should. Because it's good. get my point.

I'll just have to wait another twelve postponed release dates for the eventual arrival of Viggo Mortenson giving what will undoubtedly be a fantastic performance in The Road. Should that movie ever actually be released in the 21st century or before the first round of actual apocalpysies.


  1. I know that feeling you have about this movie as I have had it before with others. If it was still in your cranium days after seeing it, usually means you liked it and it's still festering.

    I haven't seen Time Of The Wolf yet, but it's sitting in my instant queue waiting for me to give it some attention. Your review makes me really want to see it even more as I love "good" slow burn films, and of course love post apoc films.

  2. I'd love to hear your take, Matt. It's definitely a film that requires the viewer to be in a specific mood. Think of Gizmo and do not watch after midnight (unless you're a night person) but do watch and share.

  3. Funny, I actually just watched this film last week. I really liked it but you do have to be in the right mood for it and it's definitely not for everyone. I am not a fan of the horse scene. I've seen a lot of Haneke flicks and I get what he's doing, but I still don't think it was necessary. It distracted me from the film too much. I can handle, and enjoy, the most realistic looking gore but the second I know it's real, it just turns my stomach. No likey. So I guess we're being confronted with our apathetic consumption of violence but it doesn't mean I have to like it!

  4. Man, I almost forgot about the horse scene, I think because I just quickly rationalized in my head that it was fake, even though subsequent reading has informed me otherwise. Haneke doesn't make films to entertain,but I agree that making more 'message-y films doesn't give him the right to commit real violence, particularly against a non-consenting creature (unless that horse had a shitty agent).

  5. I hear horses are bad negotiators and impulsive in their decision making so a shitty agent indeed...

  6. Teehee, I always love a good horse pun.
    Plus I hate them anyway because one bit my finger twelve years ago and I still bear the scar on my middle finger. Still, watching one die kind of sucks.