[Big Bad Wolves is playing at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Click here for showtimes and to purchase tickets.]
Horrific crimes need someone to blame. In the case where the killers commit suicide, grief becomes scattershot. “It’s the media.” “It’s the culture.” “It’s the government.” “It’s the parents.” But in the case of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado‘s Big Bad Wolves where a serial killer is on the loose, blame takes a different form. The desire for justice overrides doubt, and the possibilities of that subtext are rich and worth exploring. Unfortunately, Keshales and Paushado let this fall to the background as they engage in physically sadistic punishments bordering on torture porn, and we’re left with a question other films have already explored, namely, what crimes merit monstrous retribution? Although the addition of poorly executed dark comedy lessens the tension, we never completely lose our interest as the question of guilt looms large over the entire picture.
After a haunting opening credits where a young girl goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek, Big Bad Wolves begins with Dror (Rotem Keinan) being beaten in an abandoned building by cops who want a confession. Their boss, Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) believes the end is justified by the jaw-dropping brutality of the crimes, but he must let Dror go due to the lack of evidence (we never see what led Micki to Dror in the first place). Micki decides to become a vigilante, but he’s not the only one. Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the father of the most recent victim, also decides to take matters into his own hands. As Micki is attempting to extract a confession from Dror, Gidi intercedes, kidnaps them both, straps Dror to a chair in a remote cabin in the woods, and enlists Micki into engaging in a more extreme interrogation.
Neither man has any doubt Dror is guilty, but Keshales and Papushado keep us guessing until the very end. If we’re certain Dror is guilty, the movie simply becomes Hard Candy where the audience is tested on the amount of violence they’re willing to see inflicted upon a child rapist and murderer. Nevertheless, the filmmakers lay out the crimes in exacting detail to where their imagination is almost more disturbing than what’s being described. We need to understand what would push Micki and Gidi to such extremes, but those extremes push the movie to a level of violence that overshadows the plot.
I’m not a gore-hound, but I don’t mind if gore is used judiciously. We’re supposed to be witnessing a beat-for-beat retribution where Dror’s “crimes” (assuming he’s guilty) are turned back on him even though he might be as innocent as the victims. From a plot perspective, the violent acts make sense. However, the execution is far too admiring of the technique. Even though we’re flinching at the violence to come, Kehhales and Papushado keep trying to inject dark humor with a “saved-by-the-bell” technique where just as Gidi is about to do something awful, he’s interrupted and the score takes on a light-hearted tone. What’s intended as a pressure valve instead comes off as glib, so the comedy doesn’t work and it also undermines the drama.
The central conflict of the movie is strong enough to withstand these missteps, but just barely thanks to the picture’s central conflict. Unfortunately, the larger emphasis on the violence deescalates the tension because we’re not going anywhere, and the movie struggles to build on anything more than the next torturous act (I will say that I may have found the experience more intense in a theater rather than on a home screener). Big Bad Wolves still leaves the viewer with some meaty questions, but the meal is undercooked.