As soon one mentions a horror/thriller involving torture, your mind may turn towards the likes of the Saw franchise. Rest assured that Big Bad Wolves is nothing of the sort. This Israeli film doesn’t dwell so much on the gory detail, which just serves to make its moments of violence that much more shocking. It’s also a smart film, going into grim areas but not being informed by the sheer misanthropy and nihilism these sorts of films tend to have in common. What’s most surprising about all this though is the fact that it also has a lot of pitch black humour, which somehow never gets in the way of the point it’s making.
There is a killer loose in Israel, targeting young girls. Police have a potential suspect, a school teacher Dror (Rotem Keinan), so Detective Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) holds an impromptu interrogation. This goes very badly, not least for a video of it getting onto YouTube. Dror’s reputation is tarnished by the accusations. Miki has been demoted with extreme prejudice, and harbouring a lot of resentment towards Dror. And Gidi (Trzahi Grad), the father of the last victim now has a target. All three are on a collision course…
One obvious point of comparison might be to this autumn’s Prisoners, both covering similar stories in a lot of ways. However, while that ended up being kind of trapped by its genre routes, and getting wrapped up in cliché, Big Bad Wolves does just the opposite. It builds upon the tropes in similar thrillers, and finds new ways to take them. Just as one gets a handle on the way a scene or subplot is going, it finds a way to through a curveball. Indeed, towards the end one major development that you think you can perfectly trace the path of instead takes the film into a deeper and darker area than ever before. It also has a very firm moral stance all the way through that violence begets more violence, it can never be justified, and the story never backs down from this. It doesn’t matter if Dror is innocent or not (the movie holds off revealing which as long as it can), what happens to him is wrong, and all these acts have terrible consequences for all involved.
Despite the horrendous areas the plot goes into, there is a lot of humour to be found, albeit in a very hangman, Coen Brothers at their blackest form. It’s all in some very deadpan interactions between characters about their situation, like the mechanics of Gidi’s plan. The thing is, despite this being a story about child murder, none of this humour comes off as being mean spirited or in poor taste. What it emphasises is that these characters are not monsters they are people. People are complicated, they are capable of the greatest of compassion, and the most horrific acts in the same breath. It raises the question of who is capable of the acts seen here, and the answer is… anyone, given the circumstances. It could be a loving father, a wise teacher, or a friendly cop given the circumstances. The same guy you could bake a cake with (as in one montage here) is entirely capable, if pushed the right way, to take a set of pliers to another man’s hands the next minute. That’s the scariest thing about this film, and it carries that point through nearly every character.
On a technical level, this film works well. All the actors give it their best and every scene builds up anticipation and/or delivers scares/laughs/something-nervous-in-between perfectly. The Israeli setting adds an extra layer to proceedings that’s not only something of a novelty, it gives the story a bit more meaning. It directly touches upon the politics of the country in quite a few ways, especially in the tensions between the Jewish and Arab populations. The smartest thing this film does is turn this paranoia on its head, but it would be a spoiler to say how. It also has a strong theme of fatherhood and responsibility, of how our actions will affect our next generation. Indeed, not only are all three of the main characters fathers, but some of the side character’s interactions with their sons inform this point too. Finally, although this is a very male orientated movie, that’s in many ways the point, as it’s stubbornness, anger, and a sense of domination that lead to the horrors within.
Big Bad Wolves is one of the strongest thrillers to come along in a good long while. It avoids some of the common traps a lot of these films fall into, finds new things to do with old ideas, and it has the courage to stand by its convictions. It’s a grim tale, but one with a lot of humanity and humour you won’t hate yourself for laughing at afterwards. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, between this and 2010’s Rabies are talents to look out for in the future. Highly recommend seeing this before the sadly inevitable English Language remake you know will be coming once this film gets praised enough.