“BIG BAD WOLVES” (Tribeca Movie Review)
Two years ago, Israeli writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado provided an out-of-nowhere highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival with RABIES, their multiple-twisty variation on killer-in-the-woods standards. Now they’re back at the fest with the world premiere of BIG BAD WOLVES, which isn’t quite as narratively knotty but proves the duo equally adept at a more brute-forceful brand of thriller.
The first act of BIG BAD WOLVES (see Tribeca screening details here) does approach a similar level of complexity, following a marvelous slow-motion opening scene backed by Frank Ilfman’s menacing string-heavy score. This prologue skillfully sets up the scenario—someone is abducting and doing terrible things to little girls—before we meet the story’s key players. There’s Miki (spelled “Mickey” in the subtitles, played by RABIES’ Lior Ashkenazi), the detective investigating the murders; Dror (Rotem Keinan), a religious-studies teacher whom circumstantial evidence has made the only potential culprit; and Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the distraught father of one of the young victims. That child’s body is discovered in a scene that pays tribute to Keshales and Papushado’s horrifying powers of suggestion, which contrasts effectively with Miki’s more bluntly brutal methods of getting confessions out of suspects like Dror.
Unfortunately, a kid with a camcorder captures this interrogation and posts it on “Vid2Cool,” which gets Miki kicked off the force and Dror—whose guilt is hardly a given—dismissed from his job. As if Dror’s day can’t get bad enough, Miki has decided (with a bit of encouragement from his captain) to stay on Dror’s case, and he grabs Dror after a tense, well-staged foot-and-bicycle chase for another round of “questioning.” That’s when Gidi intervenes, intending to get the confession that he believes the police are incapable of extracting. Maniacs like this, according to Gidi, aren’t afraid of the cops; “Maniacs are afraid of maniacs,” he says, which sets the tone for the action to follow.
Once the elaborate but cleanly presented setup is out of the way, Keshales and Papushado narrow the focus down to the unpleasant yet riveting events that transpire at Gidi’s remote house. Here’s where they really tighten the screws—not literally, though that’s about the only kind of hardware Gidi doesn’t apply to Dror in an attempt to get him to talk. Driven around the bend by grief, Gidi nonetheless maintains his composure throughout his interrogations, and Grad’s enactment of this deadpan avenger is BIG BAD WOLVES’ spellbinding center; his just-the-facts recitation of the sickening fates his daughter and the other girls suffered (the fact that their heads have never been found is far from the worst part) is more powerful than any onscreen forensic evidence would have been. What he does to Dror, on the other hand (and foot), is presented in sometimes excruciating detail that dares you to keep watching.
Dror, of course, protests his innocence and is pretty convincing about it, and part of BIG BAD WOLVES’ mounting tension lies in not knowing for sure whether he really committed the atrocities or not, and thus deserves what Gidi is dishing out. Miki, meanwhile, gradually becomes the film’s moral center, questioning his own early certainties; the fact that both he and Dror have young daughters of their own with wives from whom they’re currently estranged is a perfect, resonant touch. It also adds weight to Dror’s argument: Could a man with a child like Gidi’s possibly commit such horrible acts upon another?
The filmmakers adroitly withhold the answer to that question right up until the chilling final frames, and there’s more along the way than did-he-or-didn’t-he suspense, and horror at the lengths Gidi will go to force the truth. Keshales and Papushado also lace the scenario with a streak of jet-black humor via sneaky details (“Ride of the Valkyries” as one character’s ringtone) and a few supporting characters who happen upon or are happened upon by Gidi and Miki. Occasionally, that comedy has a political tinge as well, as when Gidi’s father (Dov Glickman) gets involved, though it’s no fair revealing exactly how. Suffice to say that Keshales and Papushado combine the many flavors in BIG BAD WOLVES’ recipe into one hearty, bloody dish that will be eagerly devoured by anyone seeking an intense, engrossing viewing experience. With just two films, they’ve established themselves as major talents on the international genre scene, and I can’t wait to see how their third feature will further advance their craft.