Written and Directed by: Aharon Keshales abd Navot Papushado
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, Tzahi Grad
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Some men are created evil.
At what point does nihilism become so bleak that you can’t help but laugh at it? Where do you draw that line? Big Bad Wolves approaches that line, dragging its audience every step of the way before forcing them to confront it: this is a fucked up premise to begin with and even more so when it dares to find a wry humor in a father’s vigilante quest to exact revenge for his young daughter’s murder. It’s hard to imagine a situation less amusing than this, and the film’s almost sociopathic approach to it only compounds how disturbing it is.
Set in a small Israeli town, the film circles around three men in the wake of a horrific murder: a cop desperate to solve the case (Lior Ashkenazi), the schoolteacher implicated in the crime (Rotem Keinan), and the dead schoolgirl’s father, Gidi (Doval'e Glickman). High-strung cop Micki is so desperate that he abducts his suspect and abuses him to force a confession; unfortunately for him, a kid oversees and records these illegal tactics, much to the dismay of the chief of police. Micki is promptly suspended but given an under-the-table, wink-wink mandate from his boss: he might be a normal citizen, but that doesn’t preclude him from continuing his investigation.
And this is where things go south in a hurry. In the first of many sly twists and turns, Micki’s second abduction attempt is interrupted by the father, who is eager to exact revenge and learn the location of the girl’s severed head so she can have a proper burial. A tense stand-off emerges between the three men when Gidi winds up abducting the other two men to a secret rural farmhouse he recently purchased for the express purpose of torturing the suspected schoolteacher. A suspected schoolteacher that might be innocent, by the way—in one of the film’s more brilliant moves, the screenplay withholds this information, leading the audience to suspect that this might be even screwier than it already is. Has this father’s thirst for vengeance blinded him to the possibility that he might have an innocent man strapped down to a chair in his basement?
You can be forgiven for thinking this doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs. Did I also mention that the film starkly captures the crime scene, where a little girl’s headless body rests in a chair with her underwear down around her ankles? How about an intense scene where Gidi recounts exactly what the killer has done to his various victims during his killing spree? Even if directors [ ] don’t explicitly show it, they linger on the deranged father’s face as he describes what happened to his daughter: first, she was seduced with the promise of a sedative-laden cake, then raped “in every hole” before finally being tortured to death. In return, Gidi will turn the tables in that exact same order on the suspected schoolteacher until he spills the location of his daughter’s head.
But then something kind of offbeat happens: the cop—who has since become Gidi’s accomplice—coyly asks if he really wants to do everything in return to the suspect, including the whole bit about violating each hole. Visibly and humorously flustered, the man doesn’t quite know how to respond; nor, I suspect, do most audiences suddenly asked to find the comedy in this bleak situation. Little does anyone know that this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the film’s bizarre sense of humor is just kicking in. Before he can even get down to business, Gidi receives a frantic call from his mother, who is worried sick about his recent behavior, leading to the first of many interruptions. The humorous nature of these exchanges is just as off-putting as the sickening implications of violence—just what in the hell is going on here?
Keshales and Papushado refuse to back down from it, too. If anything, they lean even more into the absurd attempt at dark humor, as the exchanges become and developments become more outrageous and unbelievable. A visit from Gidi’s blissfully unaware but finicky father proves to be one of many unexpected wrinkles in what eventually degenerates into a misanthropic comedy of errors, one that presumes that the worst in everyone is lurking just below their charming exteriors. None of the characters are paragons of virtue—hell, one of them even takes the time to compliment a stranger’s nice new iPhone, a hilarious bit of levity that’s followed up with an absolute sucker punch.
That’s the kind of movie Big Bad Wolves is: almost totally unassuming and disarming in its humor before baring its teeth and tearing your throat out. Each performance is so wonderfully nuanced that you want to believe the best about these men: that the schoolteacher is innocent, that Gidi is simply consumed by heartbreak, that Micki simply wants justice. You sense that these men—including Gidi’s father—could be good men twisted into horrible creatures by circumstance. The truth proves to be much more uncomfortable: just when Keshales and Papushado consider the possibility of hope (dangling precariously from Keinan’s slippery, affecting turn), they yank it away with a queasy turn of events. Stomaching the explicit violence—which includes everything from blowtorched flesh to ripped nails to broken fingers—is one thing; stomaching the moral abyss that Big Bad Wolves peers into is another thing altogether.
Confined to more or less one location for most of the film, Keshales and Papushado nonetheless weave an intense, compelling tale for 110 increasingly savage minutes. Their ability to draw the audience directly into this warped world almost exclusively through a set of performances is admirable. It’s rare that a film goes beyond making audiences uncomfortable via sheer violence—while the duo exploits that, they go several steps further by crafting a genuine investment in these characters that makes the twisting plot and violent outbursts all the more impactful.
Daring to go one step further and coax laughter suggests an almost anarchic outlook not too far removed from debut feature Rabies. However, this is a much more polished, assured effort moored to actual drama, whereas that film carried itself much more glibly. If that film was an Israeli Bay of Blood, then this one is more in the vein of Blue Ruin or Prisoners in its attempt to mediate on the destructiveness of revenge. By their own admission, it’s a reflection of Israel’s “existential anxiety,” something I typically wouldn’t bother to note but feel compelled to acknowledge because I don’t want to presume about a region I have little experience with. Obviously, it’s one of the world’s most tumultuous areas, and Big Bad Wolves holds up a mirror to all of its uncertainty, resulting in a topsy-turvy tale where nothing is quite certain. (It’s worth noting that the lone Palestinian here is pointedly a helpful farmer, suggesting that boogeyman outsiders aren’t to blame for Israel’s own self-destructiveness.)
Eventually, all Big Bad Wolves can do is gaze into that mirror and find the gall to admit that, ultimately, maybe we have to laugh to keep from crying.
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