Fantastic Fest Review: BIG BAD WOLVES Is No Fairy Tale

Bad guys do bad things. But it's good!

Having loved Rabies (aka Kalevet) so much that I slotted it near the top of my "Best Horror of 2012" list (it'd probably make my top 10 across all genres if I were to put one together), filmmaker team Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's followup Big Bad Wolves was a top priority during my limited time at Fantastic Fest - but I didn't even bother to look at what it was about. I actually took the title literally and assumed that it was a werewolf film, or at least something that took on its tropes the way that Rabies often FELT like a woods-based slasher film despite not actually being one.

But no, it's actually a very realistic, and very grim, account of the aftermath of a young girl's kidnapping and murder. The chief suspect is Dror (Rotem Keinan), a schoolteacher who is beaten viciously by some cops during an "interrogation", but offers no information - perhaps he is innocent. However, the beating is filmed by a witness, and when uploaded to Youtube, both the teacher and Miki the head officer (Lior Ashkenazi) find their lives ruined. Dror loses his job and is looked at as a pedophile and murderer; Miki is demoted and begins stalking the man in order to find proof that he was indeed their man.

And then it gets complicated. Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the girl's father, also isn't convinced that Dror is innocent, and aims to pick up where Miki left off. After one of Miki's surveillance efforts goes awry, Gidi recruits him to help get the confession (and the location of the girl's head - told you it was grim) out of the man, using techniques far more brutal than Miki's mere beating. Gidi's plan involves carrying out exact revenge - doing to Dror exactly what he believes was done to his daughter and other girls that have been found dead, including the forced removal of fingernails and toenails.

The girls were also raped, but Miki and Gidi decide to just skip that part of the "eye for an eye" plan, in a conversation that yes, actually manages to elicit laughs out of the topic of rape. Keshales and Papushado work lots of very dry and uncomfortable humor out of the situations in the film, giving it a bit of a Coen brothers flair (as did Rabies) that relieves some of the tension without turning it into a farce. Gidi's father (played by an actor who doesn't look that much older than him - I thought they were brothers at first) ultimately shows up and causes a disruption to their torture, right around the time that Miki begins to wonder if maybe Dror truly is innocent.

Of course, this is what makes the film work as well as it does; we are never told for sure if Dror is our guy or not until the very last shot of the film, and most audience members will eventually start to feel sympathy for the guy who may have done nothing wrong. Keinan's performance is terrific, and my brain is too movie-wired to accept that it's as simple as him being the guy anyway - I actually felt bad for him before they even brought him to the house for the "real" torture. And the filmmakers twist the knife a bit by giving him a child of his own; one who is somewhat estranged due to divorce. When he calls his wife to let her know that he bought her a bike for her birthday and she tells him to just leave it outside for her to find the following day, you can't help but feel for the guy. Worse, Miki is in the exact same situation - during one of his tails his ex calls to remind him to pick their daughter up for his alotted time with her.

You might have noticed both events were phone calls - there actually isn't a single adult female of note on-screen throughout the entire film. As the director explained during the post-screening Q&A, a woman would be rational and the movie's events wouldn't happen - this is what happens when everything is left to bloodthirsty men (if you haven't guessed, the title refers to the three men at its center). In fact, my only real issue with the film was the introduction of Gidi's father - it seemed just a contrivance to get the man out of the room long enough for Miki and Dror to talk alone, and add a bit more of that tension breaking humor. I think if they just left it to the three men and no one else during this 2nd half of the film, it would be an even stronger effort.

But his presence doesn't have any major drawbacks; the filmmakers still stage some brilliant nailbiter scenes, such as when Dror relents to the torture and gives them a location where the girl's head could be found. The unknown makes it unbearable - if there's nothing there it doesn't actually prove anything, as Dror could just be buying himself some time either way. And Miki, being our de facto hero, continues to wrestle with his own doubt, adding another layer of unease. It's hard enough to present a film with only two main characters that you're not sure who to side with (such as Heat - you want Pacino to get his man, but you don't necessarily want to see DeNiro killed or even behind bars), but to present a situation where you want THREE opposing characters to succeed is nothing short of masterful. It might take a touch long to get all of the pieces in place (though I should point out that this was a midnight entry and my 5th film of the day), but once they are, Big Bad Wolves delivers the goods and solidifies Keshales and Papushado as a force to be reckoned with, and I eagerly await to see how they'll turn our expectations inside out again on their next effort.