Part of AFI Fest’s midnight screening series, Big Bad Wolves is an entertaining and unsettling revenge film from Israel. It is touted by co-writers and co-directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales as Israel’s second genre film ever; they made the first one a few years ago. The film concerns a town that is plagued by a pedophile that is raping and brutally murdering young girls, his final act to cut off their heads while they are still alive. The police have been unable to catch him, and Detective Mickey (Lior Ashkenazi) takes matters into his own hands at the start of the film, roughing up their sole witness, a school teacher named Dror (Rotem Keinan). Mickey’s only reward is that he gets temporarily kicked off the force, the police have to let the suspect go, and another girl turns up dead.
Enter Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the latest young victim’s father, hellbent on revenge and intent on finding out where the murderer buried his daughter’s head. Just like the police, Gidi only has one suspect, so he sets his sights on Dror. What unfolds is intense, violent, and often times comical, which is what truly makes this film so remarkable. The above synopsis does not sound like a story that has any possibilities for comedy, but the tone that Papushado and Keshales set from the outset lets us know that our heroes are inept, misguided, though thoroughly focused, and while they do not shy away from violence, they often times are able to couch it in humorous circumstances, even while they are in an overly grim, serious narrative. Stylishly filmed, there are beautiful wide shots and tracking shots that are constantly building suspense or terror, and even though they may just be of Gidi walking through a basement hallway, it is the intent that they relay, and the fact that we aren’t sure what he’s going to do when he reaches the end of that hallway. Or maybe we are sure, and that’s what scares us. Gidi is a force of unstoppable nature, a grieving parent willing to do anything to find the truth.
The score by Frank Hayim Ilfman is stunning, often grandiose, and works to heighten the anticipation of what we fear is coming and also to give a sense of action to scenes that actually are quite stationary. The implied violence and the results of the violence are almost more horrible than the violence itself, which often comes quickly and spontaneously, and even though we are expecting or anticipating it, it still catches us off-guard. The movie wonderfully builds tension in individual scenes all the while building it as a whole throughout, and there is an ominous feeling of dread hanging over the whole story. The comedy comes in an elegant balance of dialogue, timing, and situations. The timing is so perfect, and it is played to maximum effect, both for comedy and for thrills. The actors also capture the timing just right, coming through in pauses and sideways glances, and in Mickey’s daft planning and unpreparedness to commit strong violence, and Gidi’s matter-of-fact way in which he discusses and does commit violence. There is an incredible scene early in the film where both Mickey and Gidi are tailing Dror, and the balance between suspense and humor is astounding, even though we know the stakes are high and the reason both of these men are after this suspect is no laughing matter.
This film is not a comedy, as I heard the man tell his girlfriend sitting next to me in the theater, but rather a dark thriller with comedic elements. Her outward and vocal squeamishness would usually frustrate me to no end, but I found it interesting, because it provided a perfect picture of what the filmmakers were going for, to present strong, dynamic characters carrying out tasks that are morally questionable and grisly, possibly for a greater good, but that still make us uncomfortable. In addition to that, they present those actions with a comedic sensibility, without ever sugarcoating the actions or their consequences. Big Bad Wolves makes you laugh and cringe and, at times, cringe because you’re laughing, and it is a film that will shock you and stick with you, both for its violence and comedy, forcing you to think about the idea of vigilante justice and that sometimes very murky line between good and evil.