Directors: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papsuahdo
If you haven't been paying attention to the Israeli film industry, you're screwing up. Given that the country is two-for-two at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, it'd be foolish to overlook the country's cinematic output, which is beaming with intelligence, fearlessness, and genre know-how. First came Jonathan Gurfinkel's disturbing teen-girl-lost character study Six Acts, a mesmerizing, hard-to-forget look at underage sexual self-exploitation that's still the best film we've seen at the festival thus far. And now there's the extremely promising duo of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, back at Tribeca after premiering their subversive slasher debut, the slept-on Rabies, in 2010.
For their follow-up, Big Bad Wolves, Keshales and Papushado have once again taken a familiar genre construct—here, the brutal revenge thriller, a la Korean flicks like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance—and defied all of the expectations. With a Coen Brothers-esque sense of pitch-black, often sick humor, a tightly written script, and the stones to deliver a copious number of hard-to-watch images, the filmmakers' second effort bests the already excellent Rabies and establishes the names Keshales and Papushado as ones to keep firm, attentive eyes on within the genre community.
Big Bad Wolves opens with a beautifully staged, slow-motion sequence in which two little girls and their boy pal play a game of hide-and-seek in and around a cabin in the woods—ending with one of the girl's disappearance and only a shiny red shoe in her place. It's a clear indicator that Keshales and Papushado have fairy tales on their minds, albeit one incredibly grim tale. A police investigation leads to the discovery of the little girl's body in an empty field, tied to a chair. The lead detective, Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) has his sights on a schoolteacher suspect, Dror (Rotem Keinan), a nebbish, lonely guy who lives in his dead parents' house and only finds companionship in his snippy pet dog.
Also ready to pin the girl's death on Dror is her father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), a former member of Lebanon's armed forces who buys an isolated cabin, redecorates the basement into a torture chamber, and, soon enough, sees both Miki and Dror down there with them. Along with a rusty pair of pliers, a hammer, a blow torch, and other weapons of bodily destruction that Gidi's not about to let sit idly by.
The dark beauty of Big Bad Wolves is that, considering how familiar that plot synopsis no doubt sounds, nothing happens predictably, or even safely. Keshales and Papushado cleverly blur the lines between good and evil, treating the prime suspect as more of a victim than his sadistic, law-breaking abusers, though they don't spell out whether Dror is innocent or if he's indeed a serial child murderer. The closer Big Bad Wolves gets to its downbeat yet fully earned conclusion, the more difficult it is to form an allegiance to any one character. And that's exactly what the filmmakers want the viewer to do, too, giving all three of the main protagonists unique, fleshed-out personalities. The torturers can't bash a single finger in without fielding annoying phone calls from their pesky wives; an unexpected guest, related to one of the men, who stops by and gets his own bloodthirsty jollies off is proficient in both maiming and comedic timing.
Keshales and Papushado pull off a difficult tightrope act here, teetering back and forth tonally from comedy to thriller and psychological horror. Big Bad Wolves is all of those without ever tipping its scale toward any particular style—it's the slickest and most entertaining serial killer film since Kim Jee-woon's 2011 gem I Saw the Devil, and a film that deserves to be seen on wide scale.