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Big Bad Wolves (2013)

The Better to Mimic You with, My Dear!

It's easy to see why Quentin Tarantino called Big Bad Wolves "the best film of the year". Co-writers/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's nightmarish tale of child murder, retribution, and fatherhood is quirky, cool, and grim as all hell. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to Reservoir Dogs, in places, and boasts the hardest-to-accept humor streak of any movie I can recall. This thing tested my spirit, and the only reason I'm not firmly in Tarantino's camp is because the ending fell short of Keshales and Papushado's own impossibly high standards.

Set in Israel, the story centers on Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), a police detective whom we meet in the middle of a kidnapping operation disguised as "official business". He, his partner (Menashe Noy), and two local thugs were caught tailing a suspected pedophile/murderer named Dror (Rotem Keinan); foregoing procedure they drag their target to an abandoned building and beat him with a phonebook. Unfortunately, their unorthodox methods are recorded by a passerby and uploaded to a YouTube-esque website.

Micki's boss (Dvir Benedek) knocks him down to the Traffic division, even though both men suspect they've just let a kid-killer walk free. Micki gets some sage departing advice from his superior: do whatever detective work you want, off-the-record--and don't get caught. Not satisfied with their previous session, Micki re-kidnaps Dror and drives him out to the woods. In the middle of the ol' force-a-perp-to-dig-their-own-grave-at-gunpoint routine, both men are ambushed by Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the wealthy, grieving father of Dror's (alleged) latest victim. Eventually, all three men wind up in the basement of a remote cabin Gidi purchased for the express purpose of finding out, one way or another, where Dror has stashed his precious daughter's missing head.

For the first ten minutes, I thought I was in for an artsy torture-porn movie. The filmmakers deliberately throw context out the door and challenge us to believe that the "protagonists" are correct in their suspicions. It's never justifiable to put someone through the hell that Micki and Gidi have in mind, but these characters are so sure of themselves that we're left to wonder (and, on some level, hope) if the meek, crying school teacher is really the most convincing wolf in sheep's clothing ever.

What saves Big Bad Wolves from becoming a knock-off of its thematically similar predecessor, Prisoners, is the humor that Keshales and Papushado sprinkle deliberately throughout their dark, dark story. I didn't think it possible to mix levity and terror to this degree: horror comedies typically balance the rival tones, but Big Bad Wolves uses comedy as another tool in its rusty tray of torture devices. Just as Gidi is about to smash Dror's fingers with a hammer, there's a knock on the door upstairs. It's Gidi's father, Yoram (Doval'e Glickman), who's brought him a pot of chicken soup (Gidi lied to his mom earlier about being sick, as cover for being left alone). What follows is an extended, funny exchange between a grumpy father and son--which allows our brains just enough time to heal before heading back downstairs.

Where Prisoners was emotional and physical torture porn posing as a movie for adults, Big Bad Wolves buries its terrific insights about justice and manhood within bloody circumstances that grow more dire and more comical by the minute. Like a nesting doll of depravity, Keshales and Papushado keep introducing us to men whose dark appetites are more twisted than the last. But we're not subjected to brutality for brutality's sake: like Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, the film breaks down a group of super-masculine characters to reveal vulnerability where we never knew it existed--and savagery where we saw only weakness (speaking of savagery, bravo to the effects artist who created the most convincing blowtorch-to-human-skin effect I've ever seen).

Sadly, if you've seen a lot of horror/torture movies in recent years, you'll likely be let down by the ending. I don't want to spoil it for any newcomers out there, so I'll speak in code: Big Bad Wolves' last ten minutes are a mash-up of Brutal and Saw III--in one case thematically; in another, quite literally. I was interrupted while watching the film, and had to wait about five hours to see the last ten minutes--which I'd assumed would be amazing, considering the nail-biting point where I'd left off. Alas, when I sat down again, prepared to be blown away, I found only a pale imitation of Jigsaw, cackling as his master plan came to fruition via his enemies' hubris.

Still, I'm comfortable in declaring this a "must-see". Sure, you may have seen some of the twists, torture, and testosterone-powered drama before, but I doubt you've seen them quite like this. The characters are so weird and weirdly charismatic that it's easy to forget the big-picture horror of the reality they've fashioned for themselves. Big Bad Wolves has ice in its veins, but a spring in its step (the giveaway is Haim Frank Ilman's Usual Suspects-inspired score), and if you can get past the first ten minutes, you're in for one hell of a sardonic good time.

Chicagoans! Check out Big Bad Wolves on the big screen, beginning this Friday at the Music Box on Southport!

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