Saturday, November 26, 2005

Day 56: The Time of the Wolf

A lot of apocalypse movies focus on "survivors," people who size up the situation and find that there's benefit to be found in the destruction of society.  Watching these industrious folk take advantage of the freshly wiped societal slate to build their version of a utopia (Dawn of the Dead) or maybe survive through brute force and manipulation (Mad Max 2 & Beyond Thunderdome) is always pleasurable.  It allows one to project themselves into the scenario and conjure up a wistful world where survival seems, for some reason, simpler than a world where you have to go through endless loops to achieve the means to convince the guy at the store that he benefits by giving you a bag of marshmallows (this is usually done with currency, a form of communication that allows us to buy CDs without dragging a prize cow into the store).

The Time of the Wolf is an apocalypse film of a different flavor, though it contains many of the same trappings of other films of the (sub?)genre.  It reminded me of Testament at times (a movie I saw at the height of a delirious fascination with nuclear weapons and one that I could subtitle for myself: how I learned to start worrying about the bomb) with its bleak and unrelenting outlook on how humans behave as society crumbles.  And yet, though the movie contains familiar plot devices like the characters not knowing exactly what is going on, the struggle for resources, or the paradox that the safety found in numbers can be, at times, a perilous one, the movie jettisons the familiar concept surrounding "survivors" in the face of danger and instead features a group of social animals known to some as "humans."

It's well written, insightful, and naturalistic throughout, so much so, that any degree of familiarity I might have felt was replaced with anxiety.  The movie's an anxiety-laden endeavor, never ebbing enough to make one feel comfortable (and any time you might think that it's about to, it ratchets up the intensity).  This is the case from the beginning to the end.  It opens with a nuclear family arriving at a home in the country, starting to unpack the car only to be held at gunpoint by another desperate family and ends with the little boy from this family about to jump into a raging fire.  It's not, exactly, a pleasant experience, but then, in retrospect, because it's so spot-on in its observations, this is one of the few apocalypse movies I've seen that actually gives me hope for my own survival.  

The novelty of the movie is that it presents an argument that, in the absence of all the security we're used to, there is safety to be found in numbers, though it comes with a price.  Certain notions of justice and retribution must be either discarded or dealt with differently than we're used to.  Two scenes in the movie feature a person in the group of survivors (note the lack of quotes to protect myself from charges of contradiction) accused of committing a crime, a crime that offers up no external proofs and are quickly reduced to "he said/she said" argumentation.  The group, which has no de facto leaders (though some people do step into that role when they feel it's needed), decides there's nothing that can be done about these perceived crimes.  The matter is dropped out of necessity: punishment would only increase tensions, thus making it harder to complete what's needed to survive.

As more people get involved, the group of survivors evolve a social structure that reminded me of the social habits of chimpanzees (or, to be fair, my idea of the social habits of chimpanzees; I'm only glancingly familiar with chimp life).  Conflict breaks out between them, is resolved through the most resource efficient means, and on they go… busying themselves with their day-to-day necessities.  When a young boy is rightfully accused of stealing, he's ostracized.  Though the boy is given a chance at redemption, he knows he can never fit into the group again, stigmatized as he is.  And yet, he still hangs around, stealing from the main group when he has a chance because they're his only reliable source for survival.

Technically, this is a first class operation all the way.  A scene where the main characters are plunged into darkness and lit only by the quick flame of a lighter or by burning hay is particularly resonant.  And all aspects of the movie are geared toward a type of naturalism that gives it a welcome legitimacy.  The realism only adds to the underlying tension in the movie's plot, a tension so great, at times I felt like I might vomit.  And yet, the tension, the uncomfortable anxiety… they exist because of the accuracy in depicting human behavior and it's in this accuracy that the movie's hope lies.  So, even with the near-vomiting feeling, The Time of the Wolf is the most heartening, comforting movie I've ever encountered about the destruction of everything that keeps us safe from one another.

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