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Review: Big Bad Wolves (2014)

Big Bad Wolves (2014)

Directed by: Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado

Premise: An Israeli film in which a man suspected of being a child killer is abducted by a police detective and the father of the most recent victim.

What Works: There is a subgenre of films in which a shady person is suspected of kidnapping or killing a child and the parents and others respond, usually by tormenting and sometimes killing the suspect. When done well, as seen in Mystic River, Prisoners, and The Hunt, these can be very subversive movies that ask hard questions about the morality of eye-for-eye justice and how assumptions and rumors can lead to life and death consequences. Big Bad Wolves is a successful addition to this subgenre but it is distinguished from similar films in a few ways. The first is its sense of humor. The proceedings of this story are very dark but the movie has a mordant, and in places absurd, sense of humor. The comedy meshes quite well with the rest of the movie, offering relief and often pointing out the absurdity of the situation while not cheapening the drama. The other distinguishing aspect of Big Bad Wolves is the way it plays with viewer expectations. Whether the suspect is a child killer or the victim of a misunderstanding is kept ambiguous throughout the film and this allows the moviemakers to do something exceptionally subversive. Movies like this generally question society’s use of violence through the suffering of someone mistakenly believed to be a predator. In short, viewers feel bad because the wrong person got persecuted. The filmmakers of Big Bad Wolves suggest that vigilante violence is tragic regardless of the accused’s criminality and they bring the audience to that conclusion in a surprising twist. Big Bad Wolves is also notable in the way it deals with violence. For the past decade torture has been a prominent feature in cinema, especially in horror films, and a lot of filmmakers have gone to great lengths to find inventive ways of dismembering their casts. The torture of Big Bad Wolves isn’t as creative as Saw or Hostel but it is intense with the filmmakers showing appropriate restraint when necessary and focusing on the dread of anticipation instead of the strike of violence. Big Bad Wolves also benefits from an relentless score by Haim Frank Ilfman.

What Doesn’t: The opening and closing of Big Bad Wolves are very abrupt. The film begins with the suspect being interrogated by law enforcement but the story never establishes the reason why the authorities think he is the killer. The lack of exposition seems intended to keep the suspect’s disposition ambiguous but it also keeps the viewer in the dark. We don’t know anything about this man one way or another and so the filmmakers build tension based on the denial of information instead of the judicious accumulation of evidence. Big Bad Wolves also suffers from inconsistency in the character of the police detective. This character clearly has an internal conflict over the decision to coerce a confession through torture but that conflict is not entirely coherent and the officer changes his mind erratically and without much external motivation. This puts him at odds with the other torturer, the victim’s father, and their conflict is also inconsistent. These problems come to impact Big Bad Wolves most noticeably in the ending. A lot happens within the last fifteen minutes of the story, including new plot twists that add entirely new dimensions to the mystery. These would have been more effective if they were introduced earlier and allowed to impact the other aspects of the drama. When the movie reaches its conclusion it leaves fundamental questions unanswered, such as what is to become of the torturers. The ending does include a powerful reveal but it could have been even more powerful if the filmmakers had been craftier about manipulating viewer expectations.

Bottom Line: Big Bad Wolves is a tough movie but its strange sense of humor and thoughtful take on the torture film make it an above average thriller. The movie is flawed but it’s very smart and requires the audience to engage with the violence instead of mindlessly consuming it.

Episode: #477 (February 9, 2014)