Big Bad Wolves


Reviewed by: David Graham

Big Bad Wolves
"Definitely one of this year’s most accomplished thrillers."

There’s a genuine risk that trailblazing Israeli film-makers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado could become victims of their own hype: horror festival hit Rabies was greeted with all sorts of hyperbolic praise when it was actually a typical mess of first-timer ideas, while this follow-up has been trumpeted by no less than Quentin Tarantino, among others. It’s reductive and misleading that both films have been championed so heavily by the horror crowd; Big Bad Wolves is markedly more assured than its predecessor and works well on the various different levels it operates on, but it’s still slightly underwhelming in its derivative nature and reliance on twist-loaded torture porn-ish amorality.

When grief-stricken father Gidi enlists unscrupulous cop Miki to kidnap suspected serial child murderer Dror, the three find themselves locked in a battle of wits in a secluded cabin in the woods near Israel’s border. Religious education teacher Dror is adamant about his innocence, bringing his own daughter into his reasoning to appeal to the other fathers’ sensibilities. Things take a turn for the sadistic when Gidi’s ex-military father enters the fray, only too happy to pile the punishment on his grand-daughter’s apparent murderer. As Gidi’s doubts over their actions grow, the group realise there may be more at stake than mere justice and culpability.

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There’s no doubt that Big Bad Wolves is exciting and thought-provoking, but it’s also curiously frustrating when something this familiar is so desperate to surprise that it ends up feeling predictable. Each successive twist of the dial feels rote rather than ratcheted, as it did with recent Hollywood pot-boiler Prisoners, the relative failure of which may prove to be another unfortunate nail in this superior effort’s commercial coffin. At least there’s none of the worthy melodrama of Denis Villeneuve’s bloated though undeniably gripping thriller; perhaps Big Bad Wolves' trump card is its fiendish sense of humour, though the audience may feel the last laugh is on them by the end.

There’s a voguish black vein of bloody allegory to this maze-y but necessarily theatrical experience – it could easily be performed on a stage, and indeed the spotlight-style basement lighting focuses attention not only on the atrocities being depicted but the parallels they intentionally carry. It’s basically a four-hander, and while the lines that can be drawn between each character and international political practices aren’t as shallowly clear-cut as they initially appear, suggestions are rife as to which behaviour represents which country the most. In particular, the way the subjects and acts of paedophilia, interrogation and outright vigilantism are set against each other keeps the tension bubbling over brilliantly in ways that are admirably ambiguous and all the more stimulating for it.

Another trick the writer/directors have carried over from Rabies is their willingness to throw a little surreal breathing space into their narrative in ways that address their nation’s conflict without detracting from the story or attempting to make some kind of sweeping statement. The scene in question eloquently says more about everyday countrymen’s bewildered view on these age-old issues than any amount of grandstanding dramatics.

The low-key but loaded performances skirt the fine line between deadpan and droll, serving the script without spilling into OTT indulgence; Tzahi Grad and Rotem Keinan both make sympathetic and suitably enraged sparring partners, the roles of victim and antagonist becoming exponentially blurred as Lior Ashkenazi and Doval’e Glickman sanction and enable the suffering. The former navigates perhaps the most tricky role with aplomb, while the latter is responsible for keeping the escalating nastiness nicely parodic. It’s an impressive ensemble, and it’ll be surprising if at least one of them doesn’t show up internationally in the future – in fact, the traditionally handsome Ashkenazi has already followed up his co-starring turn in art-house export Yossi with American TV movie The Missionary.

The directors’ relatively restrained approach is key to reining the actors in and keeping the audience on board, reserving the camera flourishes for outside the cabin in order to keep the suspense building within. As the action grows ever more feverish, the storyline starts to spin a little out of control and into cliché – the final race against time is an unfortunate throwback to Saw’s dual scenario climax – and the outcome of it all is as disappointingly obvious as it is bracingly bleak. There’s precious little female interest to be had too, which could limit the film’s appeal even further, but like The Usual Suspects, its tricksy quality will make fans want to revisit it again at least once.

Overall, Big Bad Wolves is another impressive step forward for its makers and the Israeli film industry in terms of the international scene, and it’s definitely one of this year’s most accomplished thrillers. It’s got a lot to say and to its credit doesn’t shout it out loud; it might not have quite the devious, devastating impact of comparable American pieces like Compliance or the upcoming Cheap Thrills (both of which benefit from Pat Healy’s everyman quality, shared here by Keinan), but it deserves to be seen and appreciated by as wide a subtitle-friendly audience as possible. Just don’t necessarily expect it to be the emperor’s new clothes that Tarantino et al are so insistent on stitching it up to be.

Reviewed on: 03 Dec 2013
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Big Bad Wolves packshot
Two vigilantes kidnap a suspected child-killer.
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Director: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado

Writer: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado

Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Tzahi Grad, Rotem Keinan, Doval'e Glickman

Year: 2013

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Israel

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