The last time global hysteria reached fever pitch—with war in the Middle East and Asia, the threat of Russia in Europe, and mass protests everywhere—movies helped pop the thermometer and push Western culture to the edge. Directors strove to catch the blood-flecked wind in Zeitgeist-y sensations such as Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic art film Weekend (1967), Dennis Hopper’s archetypal biker indie, Easy Rider (1969), and John Avildsen’s black comedy Joe (1970), which made Peter Boyle a star as a homicidal working-class antihero who hates liberals and hippies.

Those films’ latest heir, Civil War, depicts America coming apart the day after tomorrow. It may be too deliberate and stark to ignite comparable excitement and debate. But it is a devastating destruction spectacle.

The film’s British writer-director, Alex Garland, likes to scare us to the marrow. He’s written novels (The Beach, The Tesseract, The Coma) that evoke William Golding, Graham Greene, and Franz Kafka, and he’s written and directed movies and TV (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men, the Hulu series Devs) that suggest a fusion of Michael Crichton and Ingmar Bergman.

Alex Garland turns a highway into an automotive graveyard, as Jean-Luc Godard did in Weekend.

With Civil War, he revamps Bergman’s masterpiece Shame (1968), the Swedish auteur’s nightmare projection of a conflict that merges elements of World War II and Vietnam as it wreaks havoc on the rural edges of an imagined European country. Just as Bergman prompted art-house audiences to see the ravages of civil war through the eyes of characters like them (Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow played classical musicians), Garland wants pop/art crossover crowds that line up for A24-produced films like Everything Everywhere All at Once to experience the chaos of our broken republic via wised-up stand-ins: journalists who plan to travel from New York to Washington, D.C., and hope to buttonhole the besieged president (Nick Offerman).

Garland’s characters represent three generations of Americans and three box-office quadrants: females under 25, females over 25, males over 25. (If Garland had given his heroine a younger male partner, he would have hit all four.) Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a formidable photographer who mentors gung-ho upstart Jessie (Cailee Spaeny); Wagner Moura plays Lee’s adrenaline-driven sidekick, a reporter in his prime named Joel, who hungers for frontline scoops to send to Reuters. Joel will never be as sage as legacy journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who files for places like “what’s left of The New York Times” and grills the younger man on whether he’ll question POTUS about disbanding the F.B.I. and sanctioning air strikes on American citizens.

Civil War depicts America coming apart the day after tomorrow.

The movie opens with Offerman’s thumbnail sketch of a chief executive bogusly proclaiming his army’s impending victory while Garland intercuts images of riots in the streets. That’s all we know about this blathering big boss and his tottering regime. Texas and California have seceded and formed the “Western Forces,” now on D.C.’s doorstep, with the “Florida Alliance” not far behind. From fleeting references to the “Portland Maoists,” the “Carolinas,” and the “Antifa Massacre,” we glean that America has devolved into terminal fractiousness.

Garland doesn’t dissect causes or pose scenarios in the manner of speculative books, such as Stephen Marche’s The Next Civil War (2022). He simply tears the last connecting threads of our already frayed social fabric. The president’s forces are said to shoot journalists on sight, and the highways have been “vaporized,” so the group tools down two-lane parkways in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. Apart from a jarring suicide bombing in New York City, the episodic narrative consists of unsettling encounters with dangerous pockets of armed men exhibiting no clear affiliations. (And they are armed men—only the Western Forces count women among their ranks.)

A battlefield road trip. From left, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Dunst, Spaeny, and Wagner Moura.

In Shame, civil war indelibly alters a man and woman who wish they had nothing to do with it; Bergman conjures a harrowing vision of how social disintegration can poison intimate relationships. Garland operates more like Crichton here. His people define themselves by their jobs—they hold our attention as they stumble through a sense-pounding high-concept landscape akin to doomsday science fiction. Watch an abandoned “Winter Wonderland” become a sniper’s paradise! See an invading army pulverize the Lincoln Memorial and commandeer the White House!

Dunst syncs us into Lee’s tough-tender mindset as she schools Jessie in maintaining battlefield alertness and objectivity despite her own progressive burnout. And Spaeny imbues Jessie with the resilience and recklessness of youth as she blanches at atrocities then comes to crave the high of photographing life-or-death action up close and personal.

Jesse Plemons blows the film sky-high.

For Garland’s concept to click, he would need to create a bullet-riddled tapestry of life during wartime. But for long stretches the van is the only vehicle on the asphalt and there are no civilians (or animals) in sight. What promises to be a crazy-quilt Armageddon turns into an underpopulated road movie. When Garland sets one startling segment in a serene small town—a 1950s throwback with a David Lynchian twist—it functions as a strange interlude rather than as a prelude to stranger things to come.

What Garland crafts isn’t a flight of visionary imagination but a cautionary tale in a docu-horror style—a wake-up call for Western democracy. When the film works, it’s terrifying. Right after introducing Joel’s likable rivals—Nelson Lee as a reporter with frat-boy attitude and Evan Lai as his driver—Garland mounts a virtuoso sequence centered on a camo-clad murderer and two soldier-henchmen. Jesse Plemons blows the film sky-high as the leader of the pack, who screws with his victims’ minds before dispatching them to a kill pit. Garland maneuvers all his characters in and out of the incident while gearing the scene to Plemons’s brisk, sadistic authority and nonchalant unpredictability (he sports flamboyant red sunglasses.)

See an invading army pulverize the Lincoln Memorial and commandeer the White House!

Generally, Garland insists that when bullets fly, motives don’t matter. This experiment in terror stands out for its glittering clarity: Plemons’s homicidal bully reveals himself to be a stone-cold xenophobe and racist. The climax delivers an explosive catharsis.

Garland can sometimes come off as a creative magpie collecting first-rate influences: Jessie gloms onto Lee like Eve does to Margo in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve; a highway turns into an automotive graveyard as in Weekend; the action freezes with a snap into eloquent black-and-white or color stills as in Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire—all far greater films.

But Garland has his own distinctive gift for marrying precision and impressionism. He orchestrates chaos, then edits it: he triggers catastrophe with a single flash of a zealot brandishing Old Glory. Like an outsider artist, he nimbly employs found locations and props—a ruined graffiti-splattered stadium; Santa Claus and his reindeer reduced to theme-park detritus. When he’s not overdosing on electronic music, he attunes us to the sounds of silence. He can even be witty when he wants to be: Lee seals a deal for half a tank of gas by offering “300 …Canadian.”

Garland does have an uncanny ability to isolate his characters amid mayhem. But he doesn’t do what Bergman does in Shame: dramatize the individual choices that pave the way for rampant moral breakdown. In Civil War, Garland veers into grim excess as he depicts a social-political death spiral. It’s easy to believe that gun-toting Americans would strap on firearms and see themselves as eager combatants. It’s harder to accept how swiftly torture and gratuitous murder become default reactions to petty criminals, unarmed civilians, and helpless opponents.

Civil War resembles Garland’s genre-perfect scripts for the horror movie 28 Days Later (2002) and the dystopian comic-book film Dredd (2012). Too often, though, his relentlessness undercuts his ambition.

Civil War opens in theaters on April 12

Michael Sragow has been a film critic for Rolling Stone, Salon, and Film Comment, among other publications, and is the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master