“Big Bad Wolves” (2013)
by A.J. Hakari
Even though Adam Sandler offers compelling evidence to the contrary year after year, I like to think that every movie has a chance of being good. Seeing a film overcome miscast actors or a terrible premise to rock my socks off is one of the pleasures that makes being a certified cinema junkie worth it. If something like Israel’s Big Bad Wolves wants to wrest gallows humor out of a subject that would be the ultimate nightmare fuel for any parent, I’m all for giving it a shot. But when something of such high ambitions ends up failing, it usually does so in spectacular and painful fashion, as is the very case here. Because it’s not confident enough in one area to be able to organically bring the other into it, Big Bad Wolves never clicks as a gritty revenge thriller or as a dark comedy. Instead, the film whips you back and forth between the two at a breakneck velocity, juxtaposing the harrowing and the silly in a manner that leaves the viewer in a greater sense of confusion than fulfillment.
Our story kicks off with a most heinous act: the abduction of a little girl. Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), a Cop Who Doesn’t Play by the Rules, instantly suspects meek schoolteacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) of the crime and sets about clobbering a confession out of him. His superiors seem to think that stuff like procedure and the law are important, so after the beating ends up being broadcast over the internet, Micki is dropped from the case. But when the girl’s headless body is discovered, he becomes more obsessed than ever, tailing Dror on his own time before moving into kidnap him… or at least that’s the plan. As it turns out, the child’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), is on Dror’s trail too and decides to haul the both of them to a house in the middle of nowhere. There, Gidi straps the object of his obsession into a chair, intent on torturing him until he gives up the location of his daughter’s remains — while not even giving a second thought to the idea that Dror may be innocent.
Setting aside its massive tonal issues for the moment, Big Bad Wolves has trouble as it is just getting its story off the ground. From the start, we’re pretty damn lost, as the audience is not made privy to the circumstances under which Dror becomes the police force’s prime suspect. Is he a notorious creep? Is he a misunderstood social outcast? None of this is revealed, and while I can understand the need to keep things vague with a plot like this, we don’t get nearly as much background info to go on as we should. This especially becomes a nuisance when writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado attempt to make a mystery out of whether or not Dror really is a sicko, while simultaneously casting as depraved of a light as possible upon him. He just barely professes his innocence and remains remarkably blasé under threat of torture, none of which help out when the filmmakers want to keep you guessing. No matter where you turn, the sense of misdirection is shot; if he’s a villain, then these are some pretty weak mind games he’s playing, and if he’s innocent, they made it too obvious by stacking the deck so much against him. Any payoff is sure to disappoint, with all pretense shattered the first moment you witness a scene and get the sinking feeling that the creators patted themselves on the back for being so novel instead of ensuring it made sense.
But the most glaring issue with Big Bad Wolves is its attitude. Despite the very disturbing subject matter, the film tries introducing a darkly humorous edge to the proceedings, which is fine. But in this movie’s case, “darkly humorous” translates to underscoring scenes of Gidi confronting a man who may or may not have done unspeakable things to his child with wacky incidental music more akin to a Meg Ryan romcom. Moments wherein brutal torture sessions (which are quite convincingly staged) become interrupted by pushy parents or for some other stupid reason run rampant here and constantly ruin the mood. It’s almost impossible to snicker at the humor because of how ghastly the events in the background are, and it’s hard to stay on the edge of your seat when a sitcommy joke is waiting to shove you off again. What a miracle it is, then, that even though they spend the bulk of the film fighting against the screenplay to create more complex characters for themselves, our three main actors give damn good performances. Ashkenazi is solid as the renegade cop who’s more of a softie than he thinks, Grad is absolutely stone-cold as the vengeful father, and Keinan walks away as the flick’s MVP, sowing doubt as to what Dror’s true colors are to the best of his abilities.
Even with its messy staging, Big Bad Wolves has occasions on which it does get its desired effect. Some lines are as funny as they’re written to be, and certain suspenseful sequences are executed in a truly nail-biting fashion. But while several have grown fond of Big Bad Wolves and its bite (including Quentin Tarantino, who declared it 2013’s best film), it’s likely to inspire as much praise out of viewers as it will exasperated fits.