Moral lines are blurred in Big Bad Wolves, a tense Israeli thriller.
A series of child murders is blamed on Dror (Keinan), who is in turn stalked by homicide cop Miki (Ashkenazi), and then abducted by grieving father Gidi (Grad) who is in search of answers. All three end up in a rural basement where Gidi tortures Dror with increasing violence, and Miki begins to question Dror’s guilt.
Big Bad Wolves (2013) is an Israeli film from directors Aharon Keshales and Avot Papushado. It’s their second film together and their first, Rabies, marked the pair as filmmakers with promise. Big Bad Wolves delivers on that promise and the film balances an interesting mismatch of genres – from horror to macabre comedy. The film is reminiscent of any number of revenge inspired thrillers (perhaps Prisoners is the best recent example) and it’s infused with a quick patter and retro-coloured visuals. Big Bad Wolves relies on subtext and within the Israeli context it has deeper and more prevalent allusions to the War on Terror and ideas of vengeance. There’s the implication that the torture techniques employed by the characters were learned in their conscripted military service.
The opening sequence of the film involves a gentle narrative of three kids playing outside. This soft focus and slow mo infused series is interrupted by the abduction of one of the little girls. The fairy tale element of the story (implied by the title) is utilised here and the little girl is whisked away by the metaphorical big bad wolf. There’s lots of cinematic tropes in the early parts of the film and the camera work, the colours, and the dialogue could all be inspired by some forgotten seventies thriller. Perhaps this is why it also feels like a Tarrantino film and the often-humorous dialog is always laden with a dark and dangerous edge.
Big Bad Wolves’ complex political narrative
The cinematography frames each shot with careful attention to detail and the movement on screen lends the film a decidedly cinematic air. This is a film not striving for realism but striving for a strong, complex, and detailed narrative that provides a political commentary on the present Israeli conflict. The reliance on dialogue is perhaps a stylistic choice that reflects this and the irony is that although much is said, it’s often difficult to ascertain if it’s true. It also seems difficult for the characters to really communicate and much of what is said seems to exist somewhere between understanding and confusion. The macabre torture scenes highlight this and nearly all of the information extracted is completely pointless.
An interesting element in Big Bad Wolves is the lack of female autonomy or even presence. There are one or two moments where a female character is on screen and each time it’s one of the little girls that dies (and progresses the narrative). This is decidedly a man’s story set within a mans world. The only other points that female characters interact with the men is when they phone to chide them, or interrupt what they’re doing (this happens numerous times in the torture scenes), and women seem to just get in the way. Ironically however it’s a girl that’s brought these men together and the story centres completely on female characters – just implicitly.
Perhaps the most comic element in the film is the mundane every day interruptions. The torture scenes are ones that are constantly interrupted by phone calls, egg timers, and general day-to-day occurrences. This means that the torture never really progresses at any sort of speed, and there seems to be a complete lack of direction from the torturer himself. There seems to be something inherently political about this chain of events and it reads as though the day-to-day always gets in the way and impedes on anything actually getting done.
The policeman, after a disagreement with Gidi, finds himself chained up alongside Didi and he becomes an impotent watcher – just like the viewer. He has no autonomy and is forced to helplessly watch as Didi is tortured with more and more unpleasant household tools. However in a sense it could be seen as the writers giving the cop a way out – if he’s tied up he doesn’t have to interfere, he can let it happen. And the cop does believe that Didi is responsible for the murders.
Big Bad Wolves is about revenge and family. In order to protect their families, each character believes that violence is a valid response and they feel that they’re torturing the right man. From an observers perspective this is simply not true and they come across as misinformed people who just get stuff wrong. They have no right, or superior knowledge, that allows them to seek revenge and with such flawed logic it seems ridiculous to allow them to dispense justice.
All the men in Big Bad Wolves are failures as fathers and the claustrophobic basement setting forces them to explore who they are in a variety of testing situations. This is a clever reinterpretation of a fairy tale – the drugged cake, the proverbial cabin in the woods, the little girl in danger – and it’s intricately told. This film will benefit from more than one viewing; it’s got great performances, a complex and interesting narrative, and an ominous score by Haim Frank Ilfman that wouldn’t seem out of place in a seventies political thriller.
Big Bad Wolves has numerous stylistic touches that set it apart from the usual revenge story. This thriller is infused with political observations cleverly disguised in the subtext and it’s also got a great story. It finds humour, horror, and drama in a morally warped context – give it a watch.