The brutal murder of a young girl is the backdrop of the stylish Israeli horror-caper “Big Bad Wolves,” from “Rabies (Kalevet)” directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.
It’s impossible not to invest in “Big Bad Wolves” from the very start. It opens with a stunning, wordless, slow-motion sequence of three schoolchildren playing hide-and-seek on the grounds of a neglected building, which could have once been a school. There are two girls and a boy. One of the girls is strikingly beautiful, and the camera like our own eyes has a hard time turning away from her. The other girl hides in an empty wardrobe. When her playmates later open the door to this closet, all that’s remaining is a single red shoe. After a clever, fantastical title sequence, we cut to the gritty realism of the Israeli police investigation as they track a suspected serial killer responsible for this and similar murders. There is never much question that the girl is dead, but it’s ultimately confirmed in a most horrific fashion.
The prime suspect is Dror (Rotem Keinan), a youngish, sudoric and vaguely weasely schoolteacher who is tormented first by a rogue police officer, his off-the-books thugs and a phonebook, and then by his students, who mark their exam papers with accusations of pedophilia. On his tail is Miki (Lior Ashkenazi), a boyishly stubborn, defeated detective who’s demoted after Dror’s phonebook beating, captured on a cellphone camera, goes viral on YouTube. There’s not enough evidence to keep Dror in custody, who maintains his innocence, but Miki is convinced he’s the killer.
Miki learns he’s off the case just after he and a colleague discover the girl’s decapitated body at the end of a trail of candy. As he leaves the crime scene, he briefly makes eye contact with the girl’s father, who is being forcibly held back from approaching the gruesome display. Miki and Dror are fathers to daughters as well. Both are estranged from the mothers, and, from what we can gather, have troubled relationships with their children. Dror’s ex, influenced by the chatter and perhaps her own suspicions, won’t let him see his daughter on her birthday; Miki’s ex is doubtful that he will show up to pick his daughter up from school, but he promises that, this time, he will be there. We suspect she’s heard that before.
Miki continues to pursue Dror, and he’s not alone. Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the dead girl’s father, is also tracking Dror, and has big plans. He’s hired a real-estate agent to find him a remote property “with a large basement,” and goes to meet the agent at a home in a rural, wooded area “surrounded by Arabs,” which brings the price down. In one of the film’s best scenes, he enlists the real-estate agent to test the basement’s soundproofing, explaining that his son will be practicing his drums there. The agent can barely contain her terror, but acquiesces. “The things we do for a commission,” she later mutters under her breath. (Incidentally, that is the only time I can recall seeing an adult woman on-screen -- the other grown-up female characters are wives and exes who exist only as voices at the other end of phone lines.)
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Before long, Gidi, Dror and Miki are together in the basement. Miki had caught up to Dror, not realizing that Gidi was right behind him. Gidi knocks them both unconscious and drives them to the property. Miki doesn’t immediately recognize Gidi, and at first takes him for a deranged psychopath. You can’t blame him. Gidi cuts a far more terrifying figure than does Dror, who sits tied to a chair as Gidi beats him and tears off his toenails, demanding that he reveal where his daughter’s head is buried. (According to Jewish law, any severed limbs must be buried with the body to which they once belonged.)
Gidi’s sadism feels as though it could be driven by more than the loss of his daughter, or his determination to give her a proper burial. A fearsome brute with intimate knowledge of the presumed killers’ methods and a background as an Israel Defense Forces interrogator, he could easily pass for a serial killer himself: He is calculating, meticulous and enjoys every minute of the pursuit and the interrogration. Like a textbook sociopath, he knows how to blend in. We know very little about his -- or anyone’s -- history, but it’s easy to imagine Gidi has done something like this before.
Indeed, a surprise visit from Gidi’s father, who soon discovers the bizarre scene, appears to provide some answers as to where his cold-bloodedness may come from. Then again, all the leading men in this movie dole out vicious punishment and accept cruel levels of pain with the same equanimity. As Miki says to Gidi as they approach their interrogation, there is no good-cop/bad-cop, just bad cops. Everyone here seems conditioned to expect the worst.
And so are we. If we are expected to side with anyone, it’s Miki, who unwittingly becomes a central figure in Gidi’s twisted attempt to exact revenge for his daughter’s death. In the face of Gidi’s unyielding determination, Miki’s certainty about Dror’s guilt begins to waver. But in the end, it is the real killer who thrusts Miki into the center of the homicidal drama: By the time a critical discovery is made, the stakes are higher for Miki than they are for his basement companions.
“Big Bad Wolves” effectively walks the uneasy line between comedy and horror, with torture scenes that pay homage to Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. A well-executed plot turn involving a sedative-laden cake is one of several clever departures that mitigate the unrelenting horror and doom. But it’s difficult to stay amused for too long when little girls are dead, and other lives are hanging in the balance. There are a handful of scenes of breathtaking cinematic beauty, but there is only man who is truly kind, and who offers comic relief unsaddled by brutality: an Arab who travels by horse, but is not so provincial that he doesn’t own an iPhone.
At just under two hours, “Big Bad Wolves” feels like it ends too soon, and not just because it closes on a savage cliffhanger. Some of the most successful episodic television in recent years has been drawn from sparser material than Keshales and Papushado offer us here. “Big Bad Wolves” leaves us dying to know not only who is responsible for the victim in the mysterious final shot, but also what about these seemingly disparate men led them all so easily into a shared emotional hell.