Review: Big Bad Wolves

2013/09/03 19:29:24 +00:00 | Becki Hawkes

After gaining international acclaim for their 2011 hit Rabies, Israeli directing duo Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado return with a new feature that’s part police procedural, part gritty revenge drama, and part laugh-out-loud comedy.

With its blend of murder, torture and dark humor, Big Bad Wolves takes a number of risks, and in lesser hands the story could easily have come across as glib or insensitive. Luckily for audiences, Keshales and Papushado haven’t set a foot wrong. The pair’s second collaborative project is a rare beast: a film that manages to be shockingly brutal, heartbreakingly poignant and hysterically funny all at once.

After a young girl is kidnapped and murdered, her body is returned without a head. The main suspect, meek school teacher Dror (Rotem Keinan), is released without charges after Miki allows an informal interrogation session to escalate into violence. Disgraced, with his job on the line, Miki decides to take matters into his own hands. However, he hasn’t reckoned on the victim’s grieving father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), who has his own plan for uncovering the truth – and it involves kidnapping Dror, and subjecting him to extreme, sustained torture.

The storyline outlined above may sound unrelentingly grim, but one of the strengths of Big Bad Wolves is the way it manages to insert humor into the unlikeliest of scenarios. The reason the film’s comedy works so well is because it never trivializes the horror of what Gidi is enduring. Instead, when Gidi is forced to interrupt his torture by a phone call from his fussy, interfering mother, the absurd humor of the situation acts as a reminder of Gidi’s humanity. He’s no faceless avenging father, but a real person, with the same family obligations and petty annoyances as anyone else.

In terms of direction, the film is an accomplished piece of work. The pace is fast and energetic, with no wasted scenes, and no moment in which the audience can afford to relax. During the torture sequences in particular, Keshales and Papushado seem to have a knack for knowing exactly when to cut away, and exactly when to linger on Dror’s reactions. There’s also a visually stunning, chilling opening credits sequence that could almost work as a short in its own right, and sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the film.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Big Bad Wolves is the fact that, for the majority of the film, the audience is left unaware of whether or not Dror is guilty. At first, Miki – and the film’s audience – are swept along by Gidi’s crusading desire for justice. After a while, however, the doubts start to creep in. Big Bad Wolves is no simplistic tale of revenge. Instead, it’s a morally ambiguous, deliberately challenging film that raises some serious questions about the efficacy of torture and the wisdom of vigilante justice.

At times, the way the film plays with the audience is reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Viewers are lured into a complicit enjoyment of Gidi’s violence, then forced to question their own tacit approval. However, the fact that Big Bad Wolves is set in Israel adds a whole new level of meaning to these moral dilemmas. Scenes featuring a local Arab farmer act as a reminder of the background of violence and conflict that the country has recently endured, and subtly hint that an “eye for an eye” attitude towards justice is rarely the best approach.

With its dizzying blend of humor and gut-wrenching emotion, Big Bad Wolves is an outstanding second feature from Keshales and Papushado. From its mesmerizing credits sequence to its haunting final shot, the film’s direction and cinematography feel assured throughout, and its three central actors – Ashkenazi, Grad and Keinan – are consistently excellent.  Without ever feeling heavy-handed, the film also manages to raise some pertinent moral questions, and it’s likely that audiences will be talking about Big Bad Wolves long after they first see it.

Film Score: 4/5