A trail of candy leads into the woods, ultimately arriving at the decapitated corpse of a young girl. Though the inevitable gruesomeness is carefully alluded to, the scenario still makes for a sad, singular image on which Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s “Big Bad Wolves” pivots, certifying itself as a fractured fairy tale with severe stakes.
For disgraced detective Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), this girl is the latest victim of a frustratingly elusive serial killer. For retired police chief Gidi (Tzahi Grad), this victim is his daughter -- brutalized, beheaded and thus unfit for a proper Jewish burial. For meek schoolteacher Dror (Rotem Keinan), this is bad news: Micki has already been kicked off the case for interrogating him in a particularly ruthless (and public) manner, but is keeping tabs all the same, and Gidi knows no such limits once he decides that Dror must be responsible for the murders. Together, these two men will seek justice against their suspect by any means necessary.
Israel’s lone and therefore preeminent genre filmmakers, co-writer/directors Keshales and Papushado made a name for themselves with their 2010 debut, “Rabies” -- technically the first-ever horror film out of that country -- and they have now fulfilled that film’s promise with this captivating morality play. Laced with the same grim sense of humor, “Wolves” is also couched in a similarly sly cultural context. “Maniacs aren’t afraid of guns,” Gidi assures Micki, “Maniacs are afraid of maniacs.” Sure enough, as the men descend into the deep, dark basement in an otherwise empty, remote home, they embody necessary evil, wielding all manner of torture techniques on Dror until he gives them the answers they so eagerly need… unless, of course, Dror is innocent and genuinely can’t help them.
Each encounter is a gut-knotter, but the brutality is often countered by well-placed interruptions, during which Gidi and/or Micki return to the surface and resume demonstrations of domestic complacency, even in the presence of neighboring Arab villagers, presented as perhaps the sanest souls in a widespread radius. Women are heard, but never seen, while the arrival of an unexpected guest suggests that the cruel deeds of desperate men span generations. The pain inflicted upon Dror isn’t just suspect in its immediate toll, but mirrors the very traditions which Gidi fiercely seeks to preserve.
The fairy-tale suggestion doesn’t stop at the title; as the film opens, we see kids playing hide-and-seek in ominous slow-motion, the primary evidence of innocence to be lost, and by the end, men are commandeering girls’ bicycles in moments of great haste. Along the way, Haim Frank Ilfman’s score wavers from conveying an operatic sense of emotion to establishing a more nimble, almost playful sense of tension as the occasion calls for it, navigating a tricky tonal tightrope as well as the three leading men do over the course of their proud, pained, panicked performances.
Although the ending seems surprisingly abrupt, hindsight reveals just how vital an outcome it had to be. Until that point, and even for days after, “Big Bad Wolves” proves to be a masterfully queasy blend of dark humor and darker humanity. May Keshales and Papushado keep that tradition alive with their eventual follow-up.
SCORE: 8.7 / 10
“Big Bad Wolves” opens in select theaters this Friday, when it will also be available on iTunes and various VOD services.