When civilization collapses, what are the consequences? Do the same codes of law, morality, and brotherhood endure, or is it every man for himself? And what does it take to rebuild a new society on scorched earth? These are the questions explored, with ruthless exactitude and insight, by Austrian master Michael Haneke's Time Of The Wolf, an unsparing assessment of humanity on the brink. Though he's known as Europe's most rigorous screen philosopher on violence, with films such as Funny Games, Code Unknown, and The Piano Teacher to his credit, the breakdown of civilization and social order has always been at issue in Haneke's work. But it's never been addressed so forcefully.
The first 20 minutes alone are as galvanizing as any film likely to come out this year, though it sets an impossible standard for Time Of The Wolf's remainder. Without a breath of context, Haneke follows an average nuclear family as they retreat to a cabin in the woods, presumably on a weekend jaunt. Upon arriving, however, they're greeted by a desperate family of squatters, who hold them at gunpoint and commandeer their food, supplies, and automobile, but not before an itchy trigger finger results in the father's death. Left with her two young children (Anaïs Demoustier and Lucas Biscombe) and rebuffed by once-friendly neighbors, Isabelle Huppert wanders the countryside in search of help, finding a feral boy (Hakim Taleb) who has survived on his own. When the group stumbles upon a makeshift colony formed in an abandoned train depot, they find that self-appointed leader Olivier Gourmet has restored order, but he's all too willing to abuse his authority.
While it's eventually revealed that the world has fallen prey to some vague ecological catastrophe, Haneke deliberately withholds that information for a long stretch, which not only keeps the action thrillingly off-balance, but allows for tighter focus on the sociological business at hand. After such a dazzling opening salvo, Time Of The Wolf slows down once it loses its aura of fear and disorientation, but Haneke's shrewd and withering observations about human nature remain potent. As ever, he's capable of conjuring some astonishing images, including a bravura sequence that plays out in darkness, save for the flicker of a torch made of hay. At its best, the film sustains the heightened tension of great science fiction, dropping in on a frightening new world that's just this side of familiar.