Editor’s note: Our review of Big Bad Wolves originally ran during this year’s Stanley Film Fest, but we’re re-running it now as it plays Fantastic Fest.
After Israel’s first horror film, Rabies, was released in 2011 to critical acclaim you would have expected the floodgates to open as other filmmakers followed suit. But it never happened. Instead, it’s taken two years for the next incredibly dark thriller to escape the country, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s from the same writer-director pair.
Young girls are being abducted, violated and murdered, and while a puzzled police force searches for evidence one morally muddy cop has run out of patience. He takes the law into his own hands after they discover the latest victim beheaded and assaulted, but his actions lead to his dismissal. The dead girl’s father makes his own move resulting in the main suspect being bound and gagged in the grieving man’s basement … with a table nearby covered in various tools of torture.
What Israel’s two-man genre-film industry lacks in quantity it more than makes up for with quality, and Big Bad Wolves ups their game from their already quite good debut considerably. It’s dark, wonderfully twisted and laugh out loud funny … but it might just leave you questioning exactly why you enjoyed it so much. And you will enjoy it.
Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) makes Dirty Harry look like a card-carrying member of the ACLU, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. His enhanced interrogation techniques against mild-mannered, suspected pedophile Dror (Rotem Keinan) are caught on video and sent public, which leads to an embarrassed and pissed-off chief suspending the cop indefinitely. He goes rogue, intent on capturing Dror, but he’s beat to the punch by the girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad). All that’s left is to see how much punishment Dror can withstand before confessing and revealing the location of the little girl’s head.
But what if he doesn’t know where it is…? What if he didn’t really do it?
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado have crafted a truly entertaining thriller that manages the rare feat of more often than not balancing the darkness and the humor. Even better, it keeps viewers guessing as to where their allegiances should sit. We’re never made privy to the evidence against Dror, so how do we know he’s guilty? But just because he proclaims to be innocent, does that mean he truly is?
The film weaves that moral uncertainty alongside laughs both honest and uncomfortable as the horrific acts of violence against Dror build to wince-inducing levels. It’s here where the film’s real genius can be found as tension and terror are ratcheted up only to be deflated with a visual gag or a phone call from a worried Jewish mother. It moves fluidly between the two extremes turning torture into entertainment and never quite letting audiences off the hook, even after they think they’re free.
The second act does feel slightly bloated, but it never bores. It’s also where the tightrope between comedy and drama gets the most shaky resulting in the occasional misstep. But even if the mid-section could use a minor trim action-wise it never stops being beautiful to look at and listen to. Giora Bejach’s camera bathes the film in beauty even as terribly ugly things are presented onscreen, and the score by Haim Frank Ilfman is perfectly suited to both the light and dark moments alongside a main theme filled with orchestral power and energy.
All three leads deliver compelling and complete performances as they move through the subtle and not-so subtle struggles before them. While Dror takes the brunt of the physical torture Miki is forced to come to terms with his own methods and behaviors after they take a tragic turn, and both actors make their characters’ pains feel real.
Big Bad Wolves is entertaining as hell, but its laughs and thrills will leave you pondering how easily you laughed and were thrilled. We want to see the bad guy brought to justice, and if he gets hurt along the way all the better, but where’s the line between good and evil acts? Where’s the point that the pain stops being cathartic and justified in pursuit of the truth? And most importantly, where’s the little girl’s head?
The Upside: Sharp writing keeps things unpredictable; very funny; challenges viewers’ reactions; beautiful cinematography; wonderful, energetic score
The Downside: Could stand to lose ten minutes from the run time; tone occasionally loses its footing
On the Side: Keshales and Papushado’s next film may just be a spaghetti western based on true but truly outrageous events in Israel’s past.