If Quentin Tarantino calls a film the best he’s seen all year, odds are you can take a pretty decent stab as to what it’s like. 2013’s Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli black comedy, depicts the lengths a desperate father and a disgraced detective will go to after abducting the alleged rapist and murderer of a young girl. Just as the title may – and that couldn’t be emphasized more strongly – lead you to believe, it plays like a dark fable, or more appropriately a Grimm Brothers fairytale. In fact, the premise may strike you as reminiscent of something like Hard Candy or Prisoners.
But beneath the simple exterior, there’s much more depth and movement going on underneath. Though certainly not for the faint of heart, Big Bad Wolves is more than a sophisticated excuse for torture porn and is oddly encapsulating, in spite of any glaring issues.
The film opens much like many horror flicks, thrillers and darkly themed dramas: by lulling the audience into a false sense of security, then quickly pulling out the rug from under them. Accompanied by a dynamic piece from Frank Haim Ilfman’s original score, the scene is a quick, slow motion recap of the girl being abducted while she and two other friends play a game of hide and seek. It all appears so innocent as the sun shines down and the music sweetly reflects the joys of youth. But then Ilfman’s score takes a sharply sinister turn, and we’re quickly put in the mood for the rest of the picture – or so we think.
Though the opening is decidedly haunting and strong, what follows from here on is something consistently dark and hilarious, and even when the script is acutely blending these two elements, it has the ability to shift between them without completely feeling as though it is sacrificing one for the other. For the most part, the reintroduction of heady drama isn’t done at the expense of pitch black humor, and vice versa. Strangely enough, the humor partially blunts the impact of the film’s more gruesome moments through its frequent effectiveness, not only distracting the viewer from prevailing suspicions and making the content easier to swallow, but also grounding the protagonists in reality and making them more relatable.
Though as much as the comedy may hit its target with deadpan execution, it is often found in moments when the plot meanders away from the objective. In fact, it often feels as though scenes were written just so co-writers and directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado could unload a bevy of admittedly successful ideas. Perhaps that might help explain why the film’s first act is overly long. Undoubtedly, the event meant to carry us forward into the rest of the film is the abduction of the suspect, but it doesn’t occur until we are well over half an hour into this 110-minute flick. Sure, the jokes hit and DOP Giora Bejach crafts some intriguing shots during these scenes, but they prevent the narrative from blooming and exposing its meat and bones.
But what’s most important about Big Bad Wolves are the additions it makes and dichotomies it sets up to improve upon the revenge-thriller formula. For example, the primary perpetrators of the this torture session are the father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), and the cop, Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), and their differing motivations and desired levels of involvement make for an interesting dynamic. The film’s midsection required some nuance to offset the carnage, and the relationship between these two characters proves a more absorbing means of conflict. Additionally, what if someone were to walk in on these vigilante crimes? Could you use reason to coerce them into becoming an accomplice? Though it later comes across as a convenience for the plot, it’s an important question Keshales and Papushado come to pose.
But if this is a gloomily woven fable, what’s the burning moral of the story? Well, it does seem Keshales and Papushado are telling us that these desperate men are no worse, but certainly no better than the man they’ve strapped down for some painful interrogating. Hints and confessions of indiscretions spice up the plot, thankfully more so than its simultaneous, discomforting M-style method of trying to find sympathy in its unassuming villain – who we can’t fully confirm is such until an unforgettable final shot. It’s a cynicism that’s sobering in its painful admission of reality, and perhaps one that’s necessary given the heightened state of reality depicted on screen.