Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie Review: Big Bad Wolves

Big Bad Wolves
Directed by: Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado.
Written by: Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado.
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi (Micki), Rotem Keinan (Dror), Tzahi Grad (Gidi), Doval'e Glickman (Yoram), Menashe Noy (Rami), Dvir Benedek (Tsvika), Kais Nashif (Man on horse), Nati Kluger (Eti), Ami Weinberg (Principal Meir), Guy Adler (Eli), Arthur Perry (Ofer), Gur Bentwich (Shauli).

Big Bad Wolves arrives in theaters having been anointed by Quentin Tarantino as the best film of 2013 – assuring a certain crowd of movie lovers will go in with high hopes. Personally, as much as I love Tarantino, I went in with trepidation. Tarantino does not precisely have the best taste in movies – remember when he “presented” Curdled in the late 1990s? Or his continued love for Eli Roth? Big Bad Wolves reminds me of Roth’s work in many ways. The filmmakers – Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado – say a lot of intelligent sounding things about the film – that they wanted to look at the effect of torture on both the torturer and tortured – much like Roth talked a lot about Abu Ghraib when promoting the Hostel movies. But like those movies, that all seems to me to be a smokescreen to disguise the filmmakers’ real intent – and that is to make a gory exploitation film with a lot of torture in it. You can make a film like this and be intelligent about it – the film shares many similarities with Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners from last fall, which I loved – but in order to do so, you have to take the questions you are raising seriously. I don’t think Keshales and Papushado do.

The movie opens with a creepy, slow motion (god, do I ever hate slow motion) game of hide and seek three pre-teens are playing. The seeker finds one of the hiders, and when they go to the place we know the other was hiding, they find it empty save for a shoe. Later, in a needlessly graphic and disturbing shot – we will see what became of that little girl – she was murdered and decapitated. The police have a lead – a religion teacher, Dror (Rotem Keinan) – but they go too far with him. They were supposed to keep him under observation, hoping that he would lead them to (at the time) still missing girl. Instead they confront him and beat him with a phone book in an abandoned industrial area – where a teenager with an iPhone captures it all and posts it on YouTube. The little girl turns but dead, Dror is let go because they have no evidence, although he also loses his job and the cop in charge of the “interrogation” – Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) gets demoted to traffic cop. The little girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad) is grief stricken – and buys a house in the middle of nowhere – but not before he has the real estate agent scream in the basement to see if he can hear her upstairs. You can see what’s going to happen, right? Eventually Gidi gets both Dror and Micki in that basement – Dror to try and torture a confession out of him, and Micki to help. Or perhaps be the fall guy – Gidi doesn’t seem too happy with the way Micki handled things, since it led to his daughter’s death.

The most problematic aspect of the movie for me was the character of Gidi. He seems demented from the beginning – so much so that the fact that he was apparently a normal guy before his daughter was murdered never really comes through – he seems like a stark, raving psycho from his first scene until his last. Contrast this with Jackman’s character in Prisoners – who does horrible things, but remains a believable person throughout, and whose actions seem consistent with who he was before everything went to hell. When his father shows up, he proves himself to be a slightly more restrained psycho, but there is no hesitation on his part either. If Micki is meant to be an audience surrogate – the man who is willing to do what it takes to get results, but only up to a point, that he fails as well because in his introductory scene he seems more like a thug than a cop. Perhaps we’re supposed to relate to Dror – there really is no evidence against him, and yet he suffers the most – but dammit, if the man doesn’t seem creepy from his first scene to his last one.

The ending of the film is supposed to be a gut punch to the audience, but feels like one more silly provocation on behalf of the filmmakers – and a confused one at that (does it justify what happened before? Decry it? Do the filmmakers even know?). The directors do play lip service to the themes they are apparently addressing – victims becoming victimizers – and they literally have an Arab show up on a high horse a few times to ensure you’ve had the message bashed into your skull.

Personally though, I would have been more comfortable with Big Bad Wolves if the filmmakers took the film – and themselves – far less seriously. They could have made a straight ahead exploitation film, but instead they try and have something to say about what they put on screen – as if having a serious message justifies everything they do. It doesn’t.

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