While we’d all like to think that we’re above primal emotions like hate and fear, the reality is actually a lot less black-and-white. The human animal may try to distance itself from its more feral, four-legged “cousins,” casting its eyes (and aspirations) to the cosmos, suppressing more earthy, “unpleasant” instincts. It may do this to its heart’s content but one overwhelming fact cannot be denied: the wild, untamed brutality of the animal kingdom always lurks just below the serene, civilized facade of humanity. At any given moment, we all walk the razor’s edge, careful not to give ourselves over too completely to the darkness.
This delicate balancing act becomes a lifelong task, then, just one other facet of life to navigate. We’re always perfectly balanced, the necessary combination of light and dark to survive in a dangerous world…until we aren’t. When we allow powerful, devastating primal urges like hate, fear and vengeance to take the controls, we tempt the fates, throw off the natural order of things. Too little of the “animal instinct” and we’re gingerbread figures, empty haircuts that mean as much to the natural order as plankton do to whales. Too much of the “old ways,” however, and we become something much different from human…much more dangerous. When the hearts of men and women become overstuffed with hate and vengeance, when we cast aside all other notions of humanity in service of stoking the indignant fire in our guts, we become wolves, ourselves. As we see in Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s extraordinary, incendiary new film, Big Bad Wolves (2013), even the desire for justice can become something ugly in the blast furnace of hate, leading us to do all of the right things for all of the most terribly wrong reasons.
Our protagonist, Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), is a charismatic Israeli police detective with a huge problem: there’s a psychopath kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing young girls. Micki’s a good guy, at heart, but he’s also one of those movie cops who operates best outside the polite constraints of the law. Along with his by-the-book partner, Rami (Menashe Noy), and a couple of eager young cops nicknamed “Beavis and Butthead,” Micki takes the chief suspect in the case, Dror (Rotem Keinan), to an abandoned factory for a little good old-fashioned “questioning questioning.” Dror, a religious studies teacher, is a particularly pathetic figure, resembling nothing so much as one of those shaggy dogs that gets wet and ends up looking like a drowned rat. During the course of the “interrogation,” Micki and the perpetually giggling moron brothers put quite the smack-down on Dror (including actually smacking him repeatedly with a phone book), all in the hope of getting him to cop to the heinous crimes. When the factory ends up being less than abandoned, footage of the entire incident is uploaded to YouTube: Micki becomes an instant celebrity and is rewarded with being busted down to traffic cop, while Dror is summarily released into a community that has pretty much already convicted him. Not the best situation for a school teacher, it turns out, and Dror is quickly asked to take a little “vacation” by the principal (Ami Weinberg): he’s welcome to come back once everyone’s “got over it,” presumably sometime between “the distant future” and “never.”
Despite being summarily chewed out by his superior, Tsvika (Dvir Benedek), Micki is still positive that Dror is guilty and intends on continuing to push him until he cracks. With a knowing look, Tsvika tells him that he can do whatever he likes, since he’s no longer working the case…as long as he doesn’t get caught, of course. But Micki does end up getting caught, right at the key moment when he has spirited Dror away to an isolated forest locale and made the terrified man dig his own grave. Far from an agent of law enforcement, however, Dror’s “guardian angel” ends up being a devil in disguise: Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the vengeful father of one of the dead girls. Like Micki, he’s also convinced that Dror is guilty but his ultimate intention is a bit different from Micki’s: he intends to torture Dror until he reveals the location of his daughter’s missing head. By inflicting all of the torture onto Dror that he suspects the schoolteacher of inflicting on the girls, Gidi hopes to achieve a kind of perverted justice. If Dror talks, he gets a merciful bullet to the brain. If he doesn’t, he’ll get the hammers…and the pliers…and the blowtorch.
As the three men interact within the isolated, soundproofed house that Gidi has set-up expressly for this occasion, allegiances are formed and torn asunder. Micki alternates between being Gidi’s captive and his accomplish, depending on how far down the rabbit-hole he’s willing to go. Dror tries to appeal to Micki’s basic humanity, as well as their shared connection as fathers: both Dror and Micki have young daughters and difficult relationships with their respective wives. Complications arise when Gidi’s pushy father, Yoram (Doval’e Glickman), drops by to bring him some soup. Upon seeing the situation, Yoram gently chides Gidi but offers to help: he’s ex-military, after all, and knows a thing or two about getting men to talk. As the situation for Dror (and Micki) becomes more dire, new revelations threaten to spin the entire mess off the rails. When men become angry, desperate and frightened, they become dangerous: they become big, bad wolves.
One of the first things that becomes clear in Big, Bad Wolves is that there’s a strong, consistent dose of gallows’ humor that runs throughout the entire film. In fact, right up until the gut-punch final image (which manages to be as terrifyingly bleak as the final scene in Darabont’s The Mist (2007)), the film is actually quite funny. Bleak, violent, savage and hopeless? Absolutely. The dark subject matter is leavened considerably, however, by a script that manages to be not only subtly clever but also broadly comedic, when called for. One of the best scenes in the film is the one where Tsvika calls Micki into his office. It’s “Bring Your Son to Work Day” and Tsvika has brought his son with him: in a classic scene that works on a number of levels, Tsvika and his son engage in some tandem ball-busting that’s pretty damn funny. “This is the yellow card conversation,” Tsvika tells his son, at one point. “Like in soccer, dad?” “Just like in soccer, son,” Tsvika says proudly, mussing his son’s hair while staring Micki down with a glare that would melt Medusa.
Keshales and Papushado (whose debut film, Kalevet (2010), bears the distinction of being Israel’s first-ever horror film) use this scene of humor is some truly surprising, disarming ways, none more so than the scenes where Gidi tortures Dror. There’s never anything funny about torture but the filmmakers manage to wring a surprising amount of genuine laughs out of these scenes. As Gidi sets about on his path of vengeance, he’s constantly interrupted by reminders of the “polite” world. As Gidi is about to begin breaking Dror’s fingers, one by one, his cellphone rings: it’s Gidi’s mom and he’d better take the call, lest she go “crazy.” Gidi and Micki flip a coin to see who gets the first go at Dror, only to have the coin dramatically roll away. Micki tries to stall the inevitable mayhem by telling Gidi that they should drug Dror first, if they really wanted to do everything to him that he did to the kids: Gidi matter-of-factly tells him that Dror also violated the girls sexually but they’ve both decided to pass on that punishment…there are always compromises.
In many ways, Big, Bad Wolves plays as a sardonic counterpart to the much more po-faced Prisoners (2013). While the Jake Gyllenahaal-starring Oscar nominee had a portentous, serious tone that practically demanded it be taken seriously, its Israeli “cousin” is much more loose and easy-going. For one thing, Ashkenazi is a ridiculously charismatic lead, sort of a Middle Eastern take on George Clooney: he does more acting with his eyes and the corner of his mouth than most actors do with the entire script. In a particularly knockout moment, Micki stares incredulously as Dror stops to help an old woman cross a busy street. The look of surprise and disbelief is obvious, but there’s an undercurrent of amusement and, dare I say, approval, that comes through just as loud and clear. Micki is a complex, engaging character with a truly heartbreaking arc and one of the most interesting cinematic creations in some time.
The real revelation of the film, however, is the towering, absolutely astounding performance of Tzahi Grad as Gidi. By the time we’re introduced to him, Gidi is already “past” the actual murder of his daughter and is moving on to the closure that he wants: there’s very little outward “sadness” to the character and no moping or chest-beating whatsoever. Gidi is a practical, cold and successful man who has been dealt a terrible blow and now must make it all “right,” just as he’s always done. As additional details about Gidi’s character creep in, we begin to see a more fully formed vision of the man, making his actions that much more difficult to fully condone (or condemn, if we’re being honest). There is nothing stereotypical about Gidi or his actions. Frequently, I would find myself genuinely shocked by something he does (the film does not wallow in gore and violence but what there is tends to be extremely sudden, extremely brutal and rather unforgettable) but I never lost my connection to him as a character. While the writing in Big, Bad Wolves is pretty flawless, a lot of the credit for this must go to Grad: it’s not easy to make a potentially monstrous character “human,” but Gidi manages to be not only massively human but completely relateable and likable, as well. He feels like a real person, not a film construct.
Big, Bad Wolves ends up being filled with the kind of subtle details and moments that practically demand repeat viewings. A throwaway line of dialogue becomes an important bit of foreshadowing…a “random” encounter with a mysterious, nomadic horseman (Kais Nashif) becomes an opportunity for an incisive point about Arab/Israeli relations. The whole film is full of fairy-tale imagery, from the opening title sequence to the trail of “breadcrumbs” that lead to the dead girls to the title of the film, itself. Far from being an all-too obvious bit of symbolism, the fairy-tale aspect is completely organic, seamlessly interwoven into the film and providing a rich depth missing from the straight-laced, nuts-and-bolts construction that was Prisoners.
Despite being an exceptionally difficult film to watch, at times, Big, Bad Wolves is the furthest thing possible from “torture porn” like Hostel (2005) and Seven Days (2010). Unlike more shallow genre exercises, the torture and violence in Big, Bad Wolves is not intended to be fodder for gorehounds: there is real pain and suffering to be found here, not just from the battered, bloody man receiving the violence but from the emotionally scarred men distributing it. Similar to Winner’s original Death Wish (1974), Keshales and Papushado’s film goes to great lengths to explore the actual concept of vengeance: inflicting pain on someone will never bring back a loved one. In a way, it’s just another death: the death of the soul and the death of essential humanity.
Ultimately, Big, Bad Wolves is a fierce, ferocious and utterly alive film. It practically bursts from the screen, thanks to a combination of exceptionally skilled filmmaking (the script and cinematography, alone, are two of the very best of 2013) and raw, vital acting. If Keshales and Papushado marked themselves as filmmakers to watch with their debut, they’ve cemented their reputations with its follow-up. Undoubtedly, there will be some who can’t stomach the audacious mixture of soul-crushing violence and humor that the film offers and that’s quite alright: the real world, the terribly unfair, brutal and beautiful orb that we stand on, is the same mixture of violence and comedy and many can’t deal with that, either. As the most cutting, intuitive writers have always known, however, comedy and tragedy always go hand-in-hand…it’s quite impossible to live without experiencing more than your fair share of both. It may seem wrong to laugh as it all comes collapsing to the ground but it’s also necessary. After all, without a sense of humor, aren’t we really all just wolves?