Big Bad Wolves Review (Israel, 2014) | Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
27Oct/140

Big Bad Wolves (2014)

Tzahi Grad in Big Bad Wolves

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In Big Bad Wolves, a bleak black comedy/thriller from Israel, the suspect in a series of child murders is kidnapped and tortured by a disgraced detective and the father of one of the victims. As the interrogation progresses each man's true character begins to show, in what is alternately a sleek critique of revenge genre tropes and a disappointing exercise that lacks the courage of its convictions.

Big Bad Wolves - Aharon Keshales and Navot PapushadoKyleDislikeNew

The opening sequence of Big Bad Wolves sets the tone for the movie as one of impending but distanced violence. Three children play hide and seek in the woods, running through the trees, old playground equipment, an abandoned house—all of which unfolds in slow motion under dramatic music building in volume and generic-thriller dread. As the seeker begins to find the other kids, it's revealed that one, a young girl, is missing from her hiding place, and the music hits a brass-filled climax as the camera pans up and out to reveal the film's title spelled in shingles atop the house the girl has disappeared from.

There are echoes of last year's Prisoners throughout this segment—the disappearance of a young child while playing, the setting of an abandoned and mostly torn apart house—but the scenario is rendered in such an overly stylized and familiar way that we're never sure how seriously to take it. In line with the film's title, this all seems like something out of a cautionary fairy tale, the details and presentation exaggerated to a precise, conscious extreme.

Interrogating the suspect - Big Bad Wolves

The film opens with violence casually observed, and will take a number of different stances toward it.

 

The scenes that follow jump in media res to an unauthorized police interrogation in which a meek man in glasses is being beaten with phone books by two thugs and a pair of detectives in an empty warehouse. We gather from their questions that the man is the prime suspect in a series of recent child abductions and murders (though, crucially, we get no information on why this is the case), an accusation he vehemently and repeatedly denies until finally the detectives' station chief calls, vaguely aware of the situation unfolding, and puts a stop to it.

Soon a video of the beating made on an unseen witness' phone makes its way onto YouTube, accomplishing two crucial bits of plot setup: one of the detectives (Micki, played by Lior Ashkenazi) is dismissed in disgrace, and the suspect (a local teacher) is publicly identified as such, which brings him to the attention of Gidi, one of the murdered girls' fathers. Through a somewhat convoluted series of events, both men, lead by Gidi, end up with the teacher (Dror, played by Rotem Keinan) held captive in a secluded house. In the first of what will be a not insubstantial string of overly gruesome details, we learn that all the murdered girls were found beheaded, and the two men plan to torture Dror until he reveals where Gidi's daughter's head has been buried. It should also be mentioned, here at this point, that the movie is presented as a stylish dark comedy.

At first Big Bad Wolves seems to be doing something unique—the level of craft that goes into the early scenes is of an almost Tarantinian order (appropriately, Tarantino declared it “the best film of the year”), as directors/screenwriters Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado tick down a list of setup scenes obligatory in the police procedural/revenge genre, all filmed with a mix of loving exaggeration and (apparent) deeper critical awareness. We get shots of the father following the detective following the teacher. We get a comical pursuit before the detective takes the teacher into the woods and makes him start digging his own grave. Some of the best shots in the movie feature the father outfitting his basement with grizzly implementations of torture, walking in righteous slow motion down a stairwell lined in stone and dingy lighting as the soundtrack thumps out that same ominous music from the opening.

Rotem Keinan on the playground in Big Bad Wolves

The film defines characters often by visualizing them in recognizable and usually menacing motifs (the renegade cop roughing up a suspect, the grown man sitting alone at a playground, etc.).

The stylization here is layered on so thick that it's impossible to miss that the filmmakers know exactly what they're doing—these scenes, operating on the assumption of the teacher's guilt, are working to get the audience excited about the violence justice to come. And what makes this bold-faced manipulation-via-style so interesting is that the film has still refused to give any reason for Dror's guilt—other than the basic accusations from the police, the only reason for us to assume that he is in fact the killer is for convenience of the plot.

Up to this point, as we wait for scenes we know will inevitably feature horrible violence inflicted upon the accused, Big Bad Wolves is juggling some really interesting ideas. It's baiting us to buy into the tropes of such a genre that allows and encourages the audience to delight in violence if it's committed to satisfy an eye-for-an-eye system of justice. The teacher is a bad man, and deserves what's coming to him, because even in the absence of evidence the selective narrative of the film has told us so. To strengthen this impression even further, the movie starts toying with the idea of his guilt through heavy-handed dread-laced images of Dror sitting at a playground, or talking to his wife just outside of a girls' ballet class. These sequences utilizes the same level of heavy stylization with which we're shown the father establishing his underground torture room—slow motion shots saturated in impending doom and dramatic music—to create in the audience an anticipation of righteous violence.

But it's here, right as things start to get truly interesting, that the film begins to falter. First Keshales and Papushado include a shot that, with an M-esque sinister exploitation of innocence, crosses too far into actually suggesting Dror's guilt. Then there's the film's casual regarding of brutal violence against children—which, despite never being shown onscreen, is employed too sensationally right before Dror's torture begins. Gidi sits before him and carefully, graphically describes the steps the killer followed with each victim, and not only do these details seem assembled from only the most horrific parts of true crime novels, but the father is played as getting a kind of perverse joy in recounting this information, a smug gleam in his eyes behind his thick, Jeffery Dahmer aviator-style glasses (it strikes me now that he looks a lot like Dick Cheney). “Maniacs aren't afraid of guns,” he says at one point, explaining his plan to Micki. “Maniacs are afraid of maniacs.”

Tzahi Grad in Big Bad Wolves

Tzahi Grad delivers a good performance as Gidi, with just the right blend of bland domesticity and unhinged menace, but the character deserves a more well-calibrated screenplay.

And indeed the film is trying to show Gidi as a monster capable of the same cruelty as the killer he believes he's torturing—but it does this in ways that are too easy, grounded in convenient archetypes or humor that render that message a cliché. Once the torturing starts, for example, the film starts to jokingly toy with the juxtaposition of the extreme violence to come (forecast by the father's monologue) with moments of tedium or domesticity: Gidi and Micki argue over who will start by breaking one of the teacher's fingers and decide to flip a coin to decide. Right before striking a painful blow, a character receives a phone call he “has to take” from his mother. At one point the father stops to bake a cake.

One problem is that the joke here isn't quite as funny or fresh as the filmmakers think it is. Gidi's psychotic detachment from the violence he's about to inflict raises the question of “who's the real monster,” the father or the supposed killer—but with the way both characters are introduced to us, as types rather than fully formed individuals, who really cares? The movie takes the position of wanting to criticize our collective zeal for the kind of righteous violence that is the climax of narratives of revenge, but once this vengeful violence actually starts, the filmmakers don't have the stomach to present it without stepping back and making sure we know those enacting it are “bad guys.”

With the exception of a few pointed, genuinely funny jabs—such as when a new character enters the picture and enthusiastically begins to threaten the wrong prisoner—Big Bad Wolves ultimately falls back on providing the same kind of conscience-free revenge-fantasy violence it pretends to criticize. It takes a unique opportunity to challenge the audience's experience of genre tropes and instead plays directly into them.

Ultimately this is a movie without the courage of its (supposed) convictions. The screenplay resorts to a fable-esque moral born out of easy revelations in the plot—it concludes that torturing the alleged killer is wrong, but only due to the same system of eye-for-an-eye justifications it pretends to criticize. There's a lot going on here, and Keshales and Papushado have undeniable talent as both storytellers and filmmakers—but this is a slick, stylish, empty exercise.

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Tail - Big Bad WolvesBig Bad Wolves(2014)

Directed and written by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.
Starring Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, and Tzahi Grad.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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