Having previously achieved notoriety as the duo behind Israel's first horror movie (2010's Rabies), filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado shift gears to pitch-black comedy in their sophomore feature Big Bad Wolves. Though it goes without saying that a picture focusing on the torturous interrogation of a suspected pedophile and child killer isn't for all tastes, Keshales and Papushado make this grim fable utterly compelling thanks to a richly textured screenplay, strong performances, and a unique talent for pushing the boundaries of good taste. A perceptive tale of moral corruption, Big Bad Wolves isn't as interested in exploring the motivations of its deeply damaged characters as it is ironically depicting the tragic fallout of their reprehensible crimes. Depending on your tolerance for such blatant button pushing, this ferocious little gem will either have you howling mad or cringing with uncomfortable approval.
When a little girl goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek, police detective Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) and his partner Rami (Menashe Noy) drag prime suspect Dror (Rotem Keinan) to an abandoned warehouse for "questioning." Meanwhile, a young boy hides nearby and uses his cell phone to capture the brutalization of the accused killer on video. Unfortunately for parents of the missing children, Miki's questionable method of coaxing a confession only leads to his demotion after a video of the abuse goes viral. But now the entire community is convinced that mild-mannered religion teacher Dror is to blame for the crimes, and he is promptly asked to take an absence from work.
The case soon heats up again, however, when the headless body of another young girl is found violated in the woods, prompting the victim's grieving father Gidi (Tzahi Grad), a former Israeli intelligence officer, to try and get a confession at any cost. But Miki gets to Dror first, doing his best to coax answers at the end of a loaded gun. The situation becomes complicated when Gidi unexpectedly gains the upper hand in the scenario, and ties Dror up in the basement of a secluded house where no one can hear his screams. Though at first complicit in the torturing of Dror, Miki also faces Gidi's wrath by attempting to reign him in. Now Gidi won't stop torturing Dror until he gets a confession. But just then there's a knock at the door, and the fragile balance of power in that dark basement is upset. Will Gidi get his confession, and if so, will Miki still be alive to hear it? As the stakes grow increasingly higher, the only thing that's certain is that whoever manages to survive this grim scenario will certainly have the scars -- both mentally and physically -- to prove it.
For a film with such a simple premise, Big Bad Wolves succeeds in raising some intriguing questions about our capacity for violence and our willingness to give ourselves over to it under extreme circumstances. From the moment we first see Dror being dragged into that dingy warehouse, it's apparent that Miki is convinced beyond a doubt he has the killer in custody. But why? By refusing to reveal precisely how Miki has come to that conclusion, yet repeatedly playing up the rogue cop's certainty, Keshales and Papushado leave us searching for clues that would implicate Dror. Not surprisingly, those clues are few and far between. By withholding the truth about Dror and refusing to offer up the evidence that has Miki convinced of his guilt, Keshales and Papushado create a compelling dynamic that draws us ever deeper into the story. Later, just when we suspect that we have started to get a handle on both men's motivations, the introduction of Gidi causes those assumptions to shift right under our feet. And as the plot develops and new characters are introduced, the screenwriters continue to confound our expectations of who these characters are and what they are capable of.
Balancing that kind of swelling tension with a mean streak of dark humor is no simple task, but Keshales and Papushado are more than up to the job. As writers they seem acutely aware of just how far the audience will be willing to let them go in such a scenario, and as directors they guide the cast down that narrow path with bold authority. Each of the characters (including a mysterious Arab on horseback and that unexpected visitor later on), no matter how minor, serve a distinct purpose, and the means by which the filmmakers connect them shows an attention to detail that keeps us fully immersed in the story.
Likewise, from the stylized opening credits accompanied by a masterfully suspenseful score that recalls the work of Bernard Herrmann, Keshales and Papushado quickly establish an atmosphere that's full of dread. When the action moves into that dank basement, the sense of claustrophobia thrown into the mix is perfectly complemented by the growing realization that there is no escape from the horrors to come. For some that will be precisely the appeal of the film; for others, it will no doubt be the aspect that sends them racing for the exit. Yet while some may argue that Big Bad Wolves has little purpose other than to titillate, few can deny that Keshales and Papushado have crafted one of the most caustically wicked mysteries in recent memory.