Draped across the poster of the new, sadistic Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves (C+) is an endorsement from Quentin Tarantino, who raves that it is “The best film of the year!” It is easy to see why Tarantino is putting his mouth behind this film: it looks, sounds and almost tastes like the stylish, bloody noirs he makes. Unafraid to flinch from depraved acts of violence while using a grimly comic tone to invite the audience into the madness, Big Bad Wolves even features a scene with the upbeat pop tune “Every Day” by Buddy Holly as a character creates a poisonous treat. It has the same giddily macabre effect that a certain Stealers Wheel tune did during an infamous ear-slicing scene. However, while the new film from writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado is bleak, bloody and oozing with style, it also falters to plot contrivances and pedestrian character psychology.
The film begins with a slow-motion game of hide and seek. A boy counts down and two young girls enter a decrepit building; however, when he opens the hiding spot of the second girl, she is missing, with only her red shoes remaining. The girl ends up the latest victim of a serial killer, her body raped, maimed, and head decapitated. Her father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), is thirsty for revenge. He tracks down the prime suspect in the case, a disheveled Bible teacher, Dror (Rotem Keinan), and brings him to a soundproof cellar in his secluded cabin in the woods. Meanwhile, the cop responsible for botching Dror’s interrogation, Miki (Lior Ashkenazi, best known for the Oscar-nominated Footnote), is still interested about the whereabouts of the missing girls’ and their heads. He ends up joining Gidi in his torture chamber, hoping for the same answers.
Keshales and Papushado pay homage to some of their favourite filmmakers of stylish, sadistic entertainment – the crack in Dror’s left glasses frame is a clear homage to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. There is even a shot from the trunk’s perspective, an obvious Tarantino allusion. Unlike their championing Inglourious Basterd, though, the Israeli filmmakers fail to insert their own inspired riff on the grim stoyline, letting the clunky plot strands and unconvincing character actions add up to a deadening effect. It also does not help that the film ends on a bitterly anti-climactic minor note, which feels more like a giddy tease of an unexplored subplot than a worthwhile closer the audience deserves.
The icy comic tone that pervades through the tense torture sequences in Gidi’s basement are fresh. Even in a space thick with tension, the men discuss the violence they are about to undertake with a darkly glib matter-of-factness. Meanwhile, a nagging Jewish mother and a Wagner ringtone provides some spirited comic relief. However, the shame of Big Bad Wolves is that it takes a wicked premise and fails to make much sense out of it. We understand very little as to why the soft-spoken Dror is the main suspect in the vicious slayings. Meanwhile, the end of the film feels calculated, with the characters behaving in deliberately uncharacteristic ways to suit a more suspenseful, action-packed climax.
Big Bad Wolves also has less to say about Israel’s response to violence and victimization (a fascinating topic gone suspiciously unexplored) as Prisoners, which looked at an American’s reaction to violence and terror to a more thought-provoking effect. (The plots of these two films are also incredibly similar.) Meanwhile, the thriller’s lack of psychological depth makes its characters less absorbing than the men in Denis Villeneuve’s chiller. The Israeli thriller remains so confined to that basement and its thrills so singular to the queasy punches of torture (and the bursts of comic relief) that neither of the three men become all that interesting. While Keshales and Papushado love dialogue that crackles with the same speed as the characters crack bones, when it comes down to character motivation and delivering a taut, satisfying final act, their writing could use a bit less pulp and a lot more inspiration with the fiction.