‘Big Bad Wolves’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, January 17th.
A dark and splendid grand guignol, Big Bad Wolves (Israel, 2013) is the second feature-film thriller from the Israeli filmmaking team of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. It is most certainly not for the casual moviegoer looking for a few cathartic scares – there’s a truly bleak and explicit undercurrent of gut-churning nihilism here. But Keshales and Papushado have invested the grisly proceedings with a genuine sense of constructive purpose and moral outrage, much like the work of George Romero. This is not a torture porn film. It’s, in fact, post-apocalyptic in many ways; the landscapes, and society’s institutions, are intact, but the human moral apocalypse, driven by everyday fear and inurement to real-world atrocity, eats away at the very people who think they’re preserving the social order, thus weakening, and irretrievably corrupting, the whole ontological-empirical edifice of empathetic human interaction.
The film begins, plainly enough, as a grim policier concerning a pederast child killer whose latest young female victim has been discovered. Following a standard eyewitness lead (‘I saw this guy in the vicinity…’), a team of street detectives enthusiastically ‘interrogate’ the ‘person of interest,’ a seemingly mousy schoolteacher named Dror (Rotem Keinan). Unbeknownst to them, however, is the presence of a witness to the questioning (in an abandoned warehouse – they’re not so careless as to employ these tactics inside a police station...) who videotapes the episode and inconveniently shares it with the world on YouTube. The lead investigator, Micki (Lior Ashkenazi, effectively channeling Jimmy McNulty by way of Steve Carell) is suspended by his commander, Tsvika (Dvir Benedek), who, nonetheless, slyly reminds Micki that the police don’t have much to concern themselves with when it comes to the actions of a private, non-commissioned citizen (wink wink, Micki…).
This is all pretty boilerplate stuff until our third protagonist makes an appearance; Gidi (Tzahi Grad) is a former Lebanese police officer who also happens to be the father of the murdered girl. Gidi has just as low an opinion of the investigating law enforcement elements as the filmmakers themselves (who have no problem portraying the police as a collection of wrong-headed back-scratching goons), and strikes out on his own to effect retribution for the crime. To reveal much else about how these three characters – the schoolteacher, the detective and the avenging father – intertwine would spoil a great deal of the film’s many darkly satisfying twists and turns. There’s a consistently surprising amount of broad black comedy here, but Keshales and Papushado never compromise the bedrock seriousness of the crime itself. There’s no direct narrative link to terrorism or the Israeli-Arab conflict, but the perpetual cultural residue of that generational antagonism is smeared liberally across the story; in fact, the generational aspect becomes a major plot-point in the later sequences of the film. Pay close attention to how much of this film happens during the daytime, and what transpires after the sun finally sets and the night arrives.
I really liked this film a lot, even as my jaw dropped at some of the directors’ more audacious levels of grim ferocity. But there’s a reason Quentin Tarantino lists it as one of his favorite films of 2013, and I suspect there’s a fair amount of respectful envy behind QT’s enthusiasm. It’s a terrific, well-structured screenplay, Keshales and Papushado juggle, and subvert, the genre elements admirably, and the technical aspects of the film are nearly flawless (cinematographer Giora Bejach’s photography is superb throughout, but Frank Ilfman’s musical score tends to veer towards unfortunate Hans Zimmer-like bombast from time to time). The film is extraordinarily strong medicine, but I highly recommend it for filmgoers who have a good sense of their own capacities for black-as-the-ace-of-spades humor and challenging levels of bloodletting. As Sean Cunningham liked to glibly remind us, “It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…”