Big Bad Wolves (2013)
“Some Men are Created Evil”
Director: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, Tzahi Grad
Synopsis: A series of brutal murders puts the lives of three men on a collision course: The father of the latest victim now out for revenge, a vigilante police detective operating outside the boundaries of law, and the main suspect in the killings – a religious studies teacher arrested and released due to a police blunder.
Every now and then a movie comes along that defies expectations in one way or another. Early on in Aharon Keshales’ and Nvot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves we see maverick cop Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) arguing on the phone with his ex-wife over his buying a mobile phone as a birthday present for their daughter, and the obvious conclusion to draw is that here’s another by-the-numbers crime thriller featuring a cop whose refusal to play by the rules risks alienating those who love him most. But it turns out that that’s not the purpose of the conversation at all. In fact, Miki’s domestic problems are promptly forgotten, and that the apparently insignificant conversation sets the scene for the final twist in a movie that is loaded with them. Throughout Big Bad Wolves’ running time Keshales and Papushado repeatedly wrong-foot their audience, and each time they do we have to re-evaluate our opinions of the three men at the murky centre of its story.
Miki is on the point of being suspended after a beating that he and his colleagues administered to a suspected killer paedophile in an abandoned building goes viral on the internet. It turns out the building wasn’t quite as abandoned as they thought. The recipient of this beating is Dror (Rotem Keinan), a small, timid-looking school teacher who is also suspended from his job when the video goes public. Miki is convinced that Dror is behind a series of killings of young girls who were raped and tortured by their killer before having their heads sawn off with a rusty blade while still conscious. Quite why he’s so certain of Dror’s guilt is never made clear — in effect, we join the story as it approaches its conclusion — and this ambiguity is very important in order for the movie to maintain its gut-wrenching impact even as it laces the incidents that follow with the blackest of humour.
Miki’s boss pretty much gave him the nod to go after Dror in his capacity as a common civilian — “a civilian is free to do anything as long as he doesn’t get caught.” — and so he abducts the teacher and, after driving him to some secluded woodland, plays a one-sided game of Russian Roulette after first making the hapless teacher dig his own grave in order to coax a confession from him. Before the bullets start outnumbering the empty chambers in Miki’s gun, however, former Lebanon police chief Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the father of the killer’s latest victim, sneaks up and smacks him over the head with his shovel. Dror’s relief is only fleeting, however, because Gidi then does the same to him before transporting both unconscious men to an isolated cottage in the country which we have previously seen him rent with the sole purpose of using it as a torture chamber in which he plans to extract from his daughter’s killer the whereabouts of her severed head before dispensing some vigilante justice.
Big Bad Wolves travels to some dark places as it shows us Gidi’s systematic torture of Dror, initially with the half-hearted assistance of Miki, and then alone when the cop begins having second thoughts and must himself be restrained. Although the directors don’t linger unnecessarily on the gruesome punishment inflicted on Dror, it leaves us in no doubt about the horror of what he’s going through. And the uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs isn’t eased by the fact that, for all we know, Gidi could be torturing an innocent man. In fact, Keshales and Papushado, who also co-wrote the script, go out of their way to ensure we experience no vicarious thrill at seeing a paedophile receive his just desserts, so that somehow the grieving, desperate father of a murdered child becomes the movie’s bad guy. It’s a brilliant twist which asks questions of assumptions made out of ignorance and exposes the pre-conceived prejudices of which we are all guilty to some degree.
Where Big Bad Wolves does fall short, however, is in the contrivances it must manufacture in order to make its story work. Why, for example, does Gidi even bother taking Miki back to his cottage when the policeman would clearly have no idea of who hit him over the head from behind? And when Miki succeeds in freeing himself from the chains to which Gidi shackled him once he lost his appetite for torture, why does he not use the mobile phone of Gidi’s unconscious father to phone for help instead of cycling across the countryside at night in search of one? Well, it’s because they need to get him out of the way for a while in order for the next plot development to take place, but they really should have thought of a better way — having the old man break the phone when he falls, for example. These are problems that only really come to light once the movie has finished, but they do take some of the gloss from what is otherwise a gripping and effective thriller.