I was extremely excited to see Israeli horror/black comedy film, Big Bad Wolves, pop up in my Netflix recommendations a week ago. I had been waiting to watch this film since learning about it from a friend after the film screened at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, the team behind the excellent Rabies (the first Israeli horror film, and a brilliant revision of the slasher film formula), Big Bad Wolves tops the duo’s debut with its black graveside humor and a fearsomely satirical gaze into the existential void.
The film opens with a wordless, dreamy prologue that nods to the fairy tale nature of the film’s title—a trio of young children are playing hide and seek around what could comfortably be labeled a haunted cabin in the woods. As the children finish their game, they realize that one of them is missing (a lone shoe remains). The sequence is shot in a kind of fuzzy slow motion that lends their actions a kind of suspended-in-water sensation, which projects the ominous feeling that their game of hide and seek is the last moment of these three children’s innocence. This opening sequence is punctuated with one of the greatest title cards of recent memory: the letters of the movie’s title spread limply atop the cabin, covered in moss and leaves, like it was part of a sign for some sad old motel. And so the fairy tale begins.
An eerie trail of candy leads the police to the decapitated body of the young girl, her underwear hauntingly tugged down around her ankles. It turns out she’s the latest in a series of child murders, and the lead detective Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) thinks that they’ve got their man—a nebbish, religious studies teacher named Dror (Rotem Keinan). The only problem is that Miki’s interrogation techniques, which can charitably be described as “extreme” (they involve the forceful application of a phone book to certain vital body parts), were caught on cell phone footage and leaked on YouTube. This causes Miki’s dismissal from the force, but not before his supervisor can suggest, in no uncertain terms, that, as a citizen, Miki he still keep an eye on Dror without the restrictions of the police force’s rules and regulations. Even if the police can’t formally investigate Dror, everyone still believes that he’s responsible for the horrific child murders – the heads of the murdered children have never been discovered.
So with the investigation now in the hands of his incompetent contemporaries, Miki starts trailing Dror with the freedom of a man obsessed. At the same time that we’re watching Miki stalk Dror, we also start following another character who is doing almost the exact same thing — Gidi (Tzahi Grad), a large, imposing, middle aged man with a cleanly bald head and big, seventies-era reading glasses. For a while, the audience isn’t sure who Gidi is, as the film never makes it explicitly clear that Dror really is the child killer, but soon we learn that Gidi is the father of the latest victim found decapitated and bound at the end of the candy trail.
As Miki’s investigation intensifies, he brings Dror out to a secluded patch of the woods, makes him dig a grave, and starts demanding answers while pointing a loaded gun at Dror’s head. That’s when Gidi intervenes and knocks both men unconscious and drags them to the soundproof cellar of his remote new home. Like Miki, Gidi means to extract a confession from Dror, only he’s willing to go much, much farther to get it. Down in the stone walled dungeon basement, Gidi, in order elicit a confession and learn where the alleged child killer has buried the head of his daughter, is prepared to inflict on Dror the very acts of mutilation that the killer forced upon his own victims (including breaking fingers, removing toenails, and ultimately, decapitation with a rusty handsaw). Miki, no stranger to the ways of vigilante justice himself, agrees to serve as Gidi half-hearted accomplice.
It’s here that Big Bad Wolves turns squirm-inducingly violent and laugh out loud hilarious. Yes, you read right – hilarious. On one hand, Big Big Wolves begins to revel in a sadistic spectacle while serving up a moral warning of the evil that good men can do in the name of retribution and justice. On the other hand, as if to neutralize the tale’s excruciating intensity and throw the viewer further off-balance, the filmmakers also play these hideous extended sequences for laughs, with Gidi regularly interrupted mid-torture — first by a series of phone calls by his guilt-trip delivering Jewish mother, then by a visit from his father (Dov Glickman), who gets his own twisted role to play in the proceedings. These dark comedic moments not only deliver a moment of levity (think the Cohen brothers tone in Blood Simple or Fargo), but also serve to show Gidi as more than just a bone-dry detached torturer bent on revenge.
The real triumph of Big Bad Wolves is that it subverts all audience expectations; alienating them further as the film goes on. As citizens we are taught to obey and believe in our police forces, so if they believe someone to be a criminal, they probably have reasons behind that claim. But, Big Bad Wolves cleverly turns the criminal into the victim, as Dror is tortured and humiliated in a hidden basement. Very quickly, the audience is forced to decide whether they agree with this treatment or whether they should believe Dror, who has been protesting his innocence the entire time. There is a dark feeling throughout the film that Dror could, in fact, be guilty, but cleverly the audience becomes complicit in his possible crimes. The directors handle this point brilliantly and keep the audience wondering throughout the whole film, only commenting briefly upon the answer in the end but leaving it quite up in the air.
It is also interesting to look at the use of torture and gore in Big Bad Wolves. Rather than make it sensational and shocking as used in torture-porn films like Saw and Hostel, the torture in Wolves feels much more personal. The camera doesn’t disguise what’s happening on-screen and instead shows the exacting brutality to the audience. When Dror’s fingers break, the audience feels it, when his nails are ripped from him, the audience feels it, and once more they are made to level with Dror.
In the new wave of Israeli horror cinema, Keshales and Papushado are at the top of their game. With Big Bad Wolves, they have created a thrilling story about consequences and conscience. They make the audience question the morality of what they are witnessing all the way through until the gripping final moments before the end credits roll, and raise some hugely interesting questions about responsibility as well as the victim/offender dichotomy. Big Bad Wolves is one of the best movies I’ve seen on Netflix in some time, and hands down, one of the best films I’ve seen thus far this year. Highly recommended viewing, but only for those who can stomach such extreme violence.