Everyone knows that the best fairy tales are the really dark ones you never heard as a child. What’s better: Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters pouting in the background, or getting their eyes pecked out by vengeful doves? The Evil Queen in Snow White falling off a cliff, or dancing in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead? I’ll consider that point proven.
Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film from writer-directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Kashales, wants to be a modern fairy tale for adults, one which bets on being as twisted and disturbing as possible. Though Quentin Tarantino (probably knowingly) damned Big Bad Wolves by naming it the best film of 2013, which it certainly is not (despite it playing almost like a feature-length version of the torture scene from Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs), there’s still an undeniable fascination to be found in watching a tale of men becoming the monsters they fear.
Big Bad Wolves opens with a dreamlike sequence in which children frolic through quiet woods, playing hide-and-seek. There’s a joyful innocence to their revelry, but we know there’s something bad coming, and the scene is shockingly effective because of that. When two of the children open a closet door to find only one red shoe from their friend, a silent shattering of innocence has taken place. Brutal, nasty reality has settled in, forever wiping away those happy days. And boy does it pack a punch.
Days later, the child in question (a young girl) is found brutally victimized and murdered, with her head removed. Cop Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) believes he’s found the killer: a nebbish dork named Dror (Rotem Keinan), who was reportedly seen at the scene of the crime. Also on Dror’s trail is the girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), a former military man who carries himself like an active one. Gidi wants revenge. Micki wants justice. When a video of Micki beating up Dror in an attempt to force a confession goes viral, he’s removed from active duty but remains committed to nabbing the guy. But when Gidi goes a step further and abducts Dror, imprisoning the guy in a decrepit basement and aiming to torture a confession out of him, Micki becomes an unwilling accomplice. Is Dror really guilty? And even if he is, if mutilation and murder are the tools they intend to use, how are Gidi and Micki any less monsters than their prisoner?
Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant thriller Prisoners dealt with these same questions last year, but Big Bad Wolves has a bite to it that Prisoners never even attempts to muster. There’s an underlying menace to the characters and a bitter black humor to the proceedings that makes Big Bad Wolves a very different film, despite initial appearances. I won’t rank them against each other, because that wouldn’t be fair to either, but Big Bad Wolves travels deeper and darker into the corners of the human psyche than Prisoners did, anchoring itself with the tortures gleefully carried out by Gidi and a tone that evokes the Brothers Grimm.
It was a very savvy move from Kashales and Papushado to inject their grim, gory story with dialogue so blind-sidingly wry that audiences can be pinned to their seats one minute and rolling in them the next. After all, there’s no rougher subject material than child murder, and the sickening descriptions given as to exactly what this murderer did to his young victims will be enough to induce nausea in more sensitive viewers. For the sake of the audience, Big Bad Wolves needed some humor.
That’s not to say that the film trivializes the crime that Dror is accused of. Conversely, Big Bad Wolves revels in darkness, using the murder as a gateway to explore weightier questions of man’s natural proclivity toward violence and innate savagery. Though much of the film is set in one dimly lit basement, it’s incredibly wide-reaching. Social commentary on the Israel-Palestine situation, the Israeli government and the country’s gung-ho military is rife, and the implications of the film’s ending speak to disturbing ideas far larger than the story of this one crime and its aftermath.
The acting is strong all around, though Grad is the real stunner as a father so bent on vengeance that he can justify anything and everything in order to punish Dror. His eyes glower with a deadly fire, and he carries himself with sadistic self-confidence. When Gidi goes over the edge, Grad sells it completely. The movie would not have worked at all with a lesser actor. The writer-directors also deserve a round of applause for their stylish, engaging approach to storytelling. Big Bad Wolves often plays like a Coen Brothers drama as penned by Park Chan-wook, combining the former’s delicious dark humor with the latter’s flair for disturbingly gory details and rug-pulling revelations. It’s a winning formula.
The film’s gut-punch of an ending sent me for a loop, and I’m still coming to terms with it as I write this. Viewers will likely fall into two camps of thought with this one, either loving or hating the direction in which Kashales and Papushado take their story. I’ve fallen into the former category; disturbed though I was by it, I really enjoyed Big Bad Wolves. Though it’s far from original, it’s an enchantingly morbid thriller that almost lives up to Tarantino’s wild praise.
Magnolia Home Entertainment gave Big Bad Wolves a strong video transfer. The film is displayed in 1080p high definition, which is more than sufficient to allow for a striking, absorbing level of detail. Visuals are essential to the timeless, haunting tone of Big Bad Wolves and cinematographer Giora Bejach makes every shot utterly gripping, from the fanciful, spine-chilling opening to the gut-wrenching final image.
The Blu-Ray transfer allows for Bejach’s work to be seen with the most clarity possible. The basement where much of the film is set pulsates with a silent malevolence, with its filthy floors and a decaying ceiling, and other details (like the rusty tools laid out meticulously on a table, ready for use) build on the atmosphere. Flesh tones are dark but lifelike (see above), and Big Bad Wolves loves casting deep, inky shadows across its characters’ faces. There are some haunting long shots, but what really transfixes are the close-ups of faces – sweaty, wrinkled, weary and often splattered with dark red blood.
The Hebrew 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is also superb, lending each line of dialogue satisfying crispness while also never marginalizing the film’s suspenseful score or instrumental background effects. Frank Ilfman nailed the score, skillfully alternating between grandiose evil and tongue-in-cheek humor. The soundtrack is also brilliant, incorporating Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” (to name one of a few) to staggering effect in one of the film’s most hilarious and unsettling sequences. No complaints whatsoever about Big Bad Wolves‘ audio track. There is an English dub – but just don’t do it. It deflates the energy of the film.
In terms of special features, there are disappointingly slim pickings:
- Making of Big Bad Wolves (16:17)
- AXS TV: A Look at Big Bad Wolves (2:57)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:00)
Out of those, only the “Making Of” featurette is worth your time. It explores a wide range of topics, from the filmmakers’ intention to make a fairy tale for adults to actors’ experiences on set. Each individual interviewed has great praise for their co-workers, particularly the directors and co-star Menashe Noy (a huge star of Israeli cinema). The featurette touches on the challenges of filming torture scenes, why the filmmakers opted for very little post-production work, the enthusiastic reception Big Bad Wolves received from festivals and how actors individually responded to the material. The AXS TV featurette just recycles some snippets from the “Making Of” featurette into an extended trailer, so fans of the film will find nothing of interest either there or in the theatrical trailer.
You’ll leave Big Bad Wolves disturbed, both at the horrible subject matter and at how entertained you were by it. Black comedies are notoriously difficult to make, and Papushado and Kashales really nailed their film’s tone and script. It’s deviously intelligent, unsettling and compelling – as well as one of those films you’ll still be haunted by days later. Especially with such a strong video and audio package, don’t miss Big Bad Wolves.
Playing like a grisly mash-up of films by the Coen Brothers and Park Chan-wook, Big Bad Wolves is a relentlessly dark, ruthlessly effective and devilishly entertaining thriller.