Is the Israeli Thriller Big Bad Wolves Really Just Chewing on Viscous Politics?

Big Bad Wolves is a nasty, vindictive little movie whose plot orbits around the mysterious rape and murder of a number of pubescent girls.

Big Bad Wolves is a nasty, vindictive little thriller whose plot orbits around the mysterious rape and murder of number of pubescent girls, but whose real focus are the men and their obsessive hunt for the killer. A girl goes missing and turns up mutilated, sending the local police into a frenzy. They tie up an accused schoolteacher in an empty warehouse and beat him mercilessly, though he never confesses. The Tarantino-esque smack-down is captured on video and goes viral. When the cop in charge of the investigation is dismissed, he continues his stakeout. Eventually both cat and mouse are caught-up in grips of a bigger wolf, a murdered girl’s father.

The title sequence brings us into the action in extreme slow motion, and the rest of the film hardly seems to speed up much. Big Bad Wolves comes at you like an out-of-control dump truck in first gear: though formidable, it’s slow, plodding, and easy to avoid. After the noir-ish set-up, the film settles into a psychological standoff. The schoolteacher has been taken captive by the ousted cop and the girl’s father. They are both convinced he is the perverted murderer. In the basement of a house in the countryside, his toenails are torn out, fingers are broken, and yet, he never confesses. As the torture drags on, we can never quite figure out if the schoolteacher is innocent or a complete maniac. And the display of viciousness on the part of the cop and the father makes them equally despicable. “Maniacs are afraid of maniacs,” the father says at one point, summing up this entire film in a single sentence.

While torture is at the heart of Big Bad Wolves, the film doesn’t take pleasure in it, passing on the potential for the teeth-softening extreme close-ups or spurting of blood we have come to expect from movies released by Magnet Releasing, the distribution arm of Magnolia Pictures that handles the studio’s blood-and-guts cult fare. Instead, the film aims for a slow, stretched tension that provokes mental anguish. And the filmmakers seem to relish the way the film pushes you away from all of its characters, leaving you without anyone to hold onto or see this world through. The only respite from the ugliness is provided by an off-beat sense of moribund humor.

There have been a lot of films and books recently dealing with the subject of the sexualized murders of children or young women, the most popular being Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but also David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (2013), and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013). It’s a potent dramatic subject. The horrifying nature of the crime immediately stirs up the passion of the audience. In each of these films or books, that instinctive repulsion to the crime is leveraged against the society within which it takes place, as a moral implication, or to measure the tragic fallout brought on by the attempt to psychologically digest the horror of the evil. But the sardonic, resistant Big Bad Wolves is up to something a little different. It needs the idea of child torture in order to grind its dramatic grist, but it dissolves that instinctive sense of moral anguish into a kind of blank moral landscape.

These are blank characters with scant backstory and little personality or dynamism. And their blankness generates an allegorical resonance. That this is Israel, after all, feels pertinent, as does the fact that the torture takes place in a house that we are told is surrounded by Palestinian villages. That setting brings to bear a political subtext. The three protagonists represent strata of society: the police, the wealthy, and the school system, and their particular perversity appears reflective of their social state. The only Palestinian we see is a young man who appears twice on a horse, like a lone Indian in an old western, and who is viewed with mystification or puzzlement. These satiric, allegorical swipes, mixed with a vicious wit, make the film feel like the work of Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia – shot-through with a kind of deep, black humor that makes its satire feel desperate. The film resists us, as much as we resist it. That it is not enjoyable to watch seems to be the point. It is a restless dream, a fascist nightmare.