EVER SINCE the great heyday of "The Road Warrior" and "The Terminator," apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic flicks have been an institution of moviegoing banality. Cue the rabid dogs, horses or cows, the desperate family with one flask of water and a shotgun, the mute boy who has learned to scavenge for survival, blah, blah.
We've watched these and similar situations so many times before (lately in such films as "The Day After," "The Day After Tomorrow," "28 Days" and "Dawn of the Dead") it seems the perfect time for parody.
Unfortunately, there's nothing funny about "Time of the Wolf" ("Le Temps du Loup"), Michael Haneke's drama about life after an unspecified Armageddon. The French-language film traipses through such familiar territory, it's hard to be as moved and devastated as we're clearly supposed to be.
Some nonspecific horror has left the world destroyed. A family, consisting of Anna (Isabelle Huppert), her husband (Daniel Duval), teenage daughter Eva (Anais Demoustier) and younger son Ben (Lucas Biscombe) pull into their country holiday home. They are surprised by another family unit that has broken in and set up house. A tragic act of panic later, Anna finds herself on the run with her two kids.
They become part of the larger, might-makes-right community that now constitutes the world. They meet a young drifter (Hakim Taleb) who has no particular allegiance to anyone or obvious sense of morality; he's only for himself. Later, they join a makeshift tribe of survivors who live in a rundown train station and grudgingly accept the leadership of a man (Olivier Gourmet) named Koslowski.
The group's only hope comes from sporadic visitors: the horsemen who carry and barter for water, for instance; or the trains that occasionally pass through. The trains never stop.
More desperate people join them. The place gets more crowded. Fights threaten to break out all the time. Women are forced to give sexual favors for food and other items. And there is talk of a special group of 36 leaders (Koslowski is supposed to be one of them), who are the world's destined saviors.
Anna tries to stay with the group, although she does not get the justice she wants when she reencounters the man who stole her home. Daughter Eva decides to make friends with the runaway boy, primarily because he stays away from the group. And Ben, who has become virtually catatonic over his plight, makes a foolish move of his own.
There's something watchable and initially fascinating about the film's understated approach. The big picture unfolds slowly, in the same way people would really experience such a calamity. And there's a certain documentary sense of reality: The scenes are in long takes, and characters come and go, seemingly willy-nilly. There's no manipulative score to influence our emotions, and we don't have to suffer through those Hollywood-ready anecdotes around the ravaged campfire ("I was going to go to medical school to save humanity and now . . . this!").
But it's only understatement that saves "Time of the Wolf" from complete banality. By playing its cards close to its chest -- in other words, showing restrained moments and only the smallest of emotional outbursts -- the film prevents too many melodramatic missteps. In the end, the movie feels like an unscripted, improvisatory experiment more than a dramatic story. And frankly, if improv is going to be the movie's big asset, I would rather have a more interesting group of desperate people to spend my post-apocalyptic time with.
TIME OF THE WOLF (LE TEMPS DU LOUP) (Unrated, 110 minutes) -- Contains the horrific slaughter of a horse and other animals, as well as sexual content and obscenity. In French with subtitles. At Visions Bar Noir.