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By Brock Wilbur · January 17, 2014
Today we are going to talk about darkness. We are going to talk about something so black that you cannot help but to laugh. I presume that many of the things I write will have an out-of-context nightmare feel to them, and that is what makes what we are discussing relevant. It seems necessary to include this prelude, because the film in discussion is so good at what it does, that in the abstract I will appear as a monster for reacting like I do. This is, understandably, the highest praise I can offer.
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado combined to write/direct a 2010 film called Rabies which was Israel's first horror film. It was brutal, unrelenting, and surprisingly funny in a way that American counterparts would be frightened to approach for fear of diluting a brand. Their follow-up, Big Bad Wolves is a Tarantino-esque kidnap picture whose closest comparison is this year's Prisoners (in terms of narrative content) but lives in an emotional and stylistic manner closest to Reservoir Dogs.
Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) is a Craig Ferguson doppelganger, who works for Israel's unhinged police force, which is inseparable from the criminal underworld. Dror (Rotem Keinan) is a slight Bible Studies teacher whom Micki assumes is responsible for the brutal serial slaying of a series of little girls. Micki's interrogation techniques go public (via YouTube) releasing Dror from captivity and Micki from the police force. When a kidnapped girl turns up decapitated the next day, Micki aims to clear his name by kidnapping and torturing Dror. Unfortunately, the girl's father Gidi (Tzahi Grad) kidnaps them both in an effort to seek both justice and the whereabouts of his daughter's head.
The morality play lives within a cabin in the woods where, over the course of a day and night, the power and alliances shift between all three members of this nightmare brotherhood. Big Bad Wolves does an incomparable soft-shoe between torture porn and buddy cop comedy. One moment, a man's toe-nails are being torn out by pliers; the next a brutal torment is waylaid by a domestic issue. Much of the jarring hilarity is born from moments unexpected minutiae (again, that which you would assume Tarantino holds trademark.)
Here are some of the details that separate this horror film from the flock. First, it is simply gorgeous. From its opening shot of a trail of candy until the final moment of realization, it is shot impeccably in a manner such genre fare is rarely treated. Second, Haim Frank Ilfman’s score dances an inverted but comparable jig, between bombastic fright and playful suspense that still nails the same tonal consistency as the narrative. Third, it is somehow devoid of women, which plays so strongly into its theme, yet is easily missable on a first viewing.
But back to the aforementioned darkness. This is not a film for the squeamish, yet it makes choices which enable this kind of visceral momentum in way torture porn cannot, and so much of it is cultural. Israel requires its students to take military courses, so when each character displays a personal efficiency for torture, it is motivated. The Israeli setting also allows for such off-shoots as a nearby Arab village (that the murderous types are illogically fearful of) and the importance of reassembling a body for a proper Jewish burial. Also, as a later act twist, the introduction of the idea of generational brutality that we cannot fathom.
This combination of cultural identity, phantasmagoria, and comedy has the makings of a film that could only arise from its Israeli origin, yet transcends those borders to be a universally painful experience. It's been a while since I looked around a theater for cues as to whether laughter made me a monster, but this defines that experience. The comedy often arises from the mere hint that you might choose a horse in this race, and other times from the sheer confidence that a competitor displays.
Big Bad Wolves is a fable come to life. If it didn't frighten you to your core, you might not learn anything.