Retro Review: BIG BAD WOLVES (2013){0}

We certainly don’t get a whole lot of horror films from Israel, so when one called Rabies (aka Kalevet) hit the festival circuit a few years ago I made sure to give it a bit of a spotlight. Fortunately for all involved the debut film from Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado was a dark and novel little treat, one that had no problem combing its own tone and attitude with some obvious inspirations from American horror films of the 1980s. Now the duo has returned with another devious delicacy. It’s called Big Bad Wolves, and it’s mainly about three men: a suspected killer of children, a detective on very thin ice, and a father who recently buried his young daughter without her head.

If Rabies was riffing on the “body count” movies we know and love, then Big Bad Wolves is an homage to everything from film noir and suspense to torture-laced horror films and psychological mystery thrillers. So obviously it’s fun for genre fans of all ages, but is Big Bad Wolves any better than a canny collection of genre touchstones?

Hell yes. If there’s anything that’s cooler than seeing a little “American cinema” DNA in a non-American movie, it’s seeing how another culture brings a fresh spark to even the most commonplace of premises. In a nutshell, because the flick is rife with dark surprises. Big Bad Wolves is about a suspected child killer who is kidnapped and strapped to a chair by the father of his most recent (alleged) victim — but there’s also a disgraced cop who failed to catch the killer through legal means and may be willing to go along with the whole “torture” idea after all.

What I’ve just described may sound like the plot synopsis of any low-budget or generic thriller found on Netflix or iTunes, but (like I said) the movie is full of cool surprises. To start, the three leads (Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, and Tzahi Grad) are simply fantastic. Each actor brings grey shades to their character, which means the cop is a little bit weak, the suspect is somehow a touch sympathetic, and the man who seems to be in control… is also sort of a bloodthirsty lunatic. Just another example of how good acting (not to mention writing) can bring new life to a potentially tired premise.

Big Bad Wolves actually works as three movies in one, provided you watch it from the perspective of each of the “wolves.” An astute viewer will see a procedural thriller (not unlike Silence of the Lambs) briefly dip into Saw territory before switching over to a film noir of darkly amusing errors, and then a twisted psychological chiller about the disparate viewpoints of three highly violent men.

And the intangibles are pretty fantastic as well: Giora Bejach’s crisp and gorgeous cinematography keep the film visually appealing while Frank Ilfman’s wonderfully Herrmann-esque score manages to become its own character by the time Act III ramps up with some chases, scrapes, and escapes. And throughout all of the serpentine-style plot contortions there’s a firm but dark sense of humor — even when dealing with the seriously unfunny topics of torture, murder, and child abuse. When all is said and done, Big Bad Wolves is a colorfully captivating and thoroughly fascinating piece of genre filmmaking. I daresay that at its best moments it reminded me of Fargo, and I don’t throw comparisons to the Coen brothers around all that lightly.