A torture-cum-horror thriller in Hebrew may be a game changer in the fabric of acceptable Israeli film-industry tradition, but critics and audiences there have turned Big Bad Wolves into a sensation. Named the best film of 2013 by the Israeli Critics Association and the irrelevant but highly quoted Quentin Tarantino, it has been racking up global controversy in film festivals around the world, finally landing in New York. Up to a point, it’s an edge-of-your-seat hair-raiser that deserves the attention. Then it crashes in a baffling last-minute scene that seems tacked on after watching too many derailments by the Coen brothers.
This is somewhat understandable, since Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, the directing team responsible for appalling the Israeli film-going public three years ago with the slasher film Rabies, devour genre thrillers like matzoh, and Mr. Keshales is an ex-critic-turned-director (rarely a good idea in any country) who loves the Coen brothers and their open-end concept of how a satisfying second act should end. But like it or not, Big Bad Wolves, which embraces the concept that in the Little Red Riding Hood story there was more than one path to Grandma’s, also proves there are more themes to explore in Israel than trouble on the Gaza Strip and love on a kibbutz.
A serial killer is on the loose, hacking up little girls and leaving them tied, without their heads, to chairs in the woods. The chief suspect, a schoolteacher, is beaten and tortured to confess the crimes by the police, then released. Without evidence, he resumes his job, but it’s too late to save the damage done to his reputation. Grading exam papers, he finds drawings of the latest murder victim plastered on the pages of the test papers with the word “Pedophile!” In a surprise move, the police chief fires the tough veteran cop who was assigned to the case with the theory that “a civilian can do anything he wants as long as he doesn’t get caught” and assigns a new detective to replace him. So the ex-cop takes to stalking the suspected teacher, while the vengeful father of the latest murdered girl stalks him. It’s a case of two cats and one mouse. Hovering in the background is the replacement cop, tracking them both. Then the game changes, and it’s two cats, one mouse and a bulldog.
When the traumatized father recruits the first cop to become his accomplice, the rest of the movie becomes a catalog of horrors in a dark rental house in the woods, where the two men decide to force the schoolteacher into a confession by repeating every torture he inflicted on his own victims. As their captive tries to appeal with intelligence and reason, begging for mercy and insisting he’s innocent, they break his fingers, one by one, with a hammer. It’s one hour and 10 minutes before they get around to the toenails. They move in with the pliers, the music swells, and the insane father is interrupted by a phone call from his mother. But this deeply unsettling movie is not over. Suddenly, the man’s father arrives and, instead of calling the police, offers to contribute, with a unique torture he learned in the Israeli army. But first he needs a blowtorch.
The unsatisfactory ending does itself in, and you may hate yourself for lasting that long. But the direction is sure and creepy, finding dread and anxiety in simple things, like the striking of a match and the sound of tires halting on the gravel. The intensity of the entire cast, especially seasoned Israeli star Lior Ashkenazi (Footnote), is thrilling to watch. Unpredictable, with a twisted surprise around each corner, Big Bad Wolves is a clever and arresting shocker from a country where blood and gore on the screen are least expected. The theme—the way to catch a maniac is to become an ever bigger maniac yourself—is nothing new to Hollywood, but from a country that prays for peace on a daily basis, the message could start a revolution.
BIG BAD WOLVES
WRITTEN BY Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
DIRECTED BY Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
STARRING Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan and Tzahi Grad
RUNNING TIME 110 min.