An alternately physical and psychological thriller opens Derry-Londonderry's Foyle Film Festival
A postmodern pastiche that has unsurprisingly made Quentin Tarantino proud, Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado's Big Bad Wolves is a lean, mean tale of torture, vengeance and black comedy merged into an immensely satisfying whole. It is likely to be as divisive as it is riveting; some will argue that it is no more than a thinly disguised combination of movie clichés, or that it exploits both its cast and narrative to justify nauseatingly virile violence. But it's really more of a worrying window into the worst excesses of differing cultures; a critique of stereotypical prejudices built around a triple-pronged story of characters driven by persistence and resentment, one that also manages to be funny and lively in the space of less than two hours.
From the start, camera angles, explosions of noise, images of worried children, and red herrings like mangled subtitles (yes, at least at the beginning) and a trail of coloured sweets in the woods are applied to heighten senses of mystery and dread in advance of meeting the "main" characters – simultaneously timid and creepy teacher Dror (an excellent Rotem Keinan), vigilante cop Miki (an almost equally good Lior Ashkenazi), and Gidi (Tzahi Grad).
The three men, fathers of only daughters, are all driven by bitterness. Miki, by the need to arrest the perpetrator of a series of murders in the town, despite protests from his superiors. Gidi, by the need to torture the man who tortured one of the murder victims: his own daughter. And Dror, by the need to escape suspicion after his repeated pleas for innocence have fallen on deaf ears.
To say much more about the plot would be spoiling everything the film has to offer: sometimes clichéd, although I'd like to believe the directors are subverting their tropes, and sometimes not. But what is worth examining here is what works so well and what doesn't.
What stands out, above all, is Rotem Keinan's acting. Dror walks such a fine line between normality and queasiness – and that’s just his expressions! – that you’re always uneasy whenever he’s on screen, no matter how many times he claims he didn't "do it".
Torture sequences, alternately psychological, physical and even humorous, channel early Tarantino while managing to stretch the boundaries of squeamishness and say something. There's a notable scene where Miki tries to convince Gidi that if one tortures someone for long enough, the "victim" will admit any "truth" just to stop being tortured (spoiler: in Dror's case, Miki is right) and another where Gidi states that to get the truth from a "maniac", which he believes Dror is, one has to be equally maniacal towards him. Or so Gidi believes.
The danger of falling for the "sympathy card" is also raised in a conversation between Dror and Miki while Gidi bakes a cake to the sound of Buddy Holly's "Every Day". It's as "Stuck In The Middle With You" as Big Bad Wolves gets, and with the unexpected arrival of Gidi's father, the film twists and turns into even more unexpected territory.
It's unfortunate that odd pieces of overdone schlock (the testing of a sound proof room, an in-your-face torture of a small dog) or virtually superfluous characters (a man on a horse) creep into view, while female characters are almost entirely sidelined. Some may also complain, not unjustly so, that large sections of the film are a little too theatrical. Consider these necessary in the context of Big Bad Wolves, however, and you are likely to be rewarded with a gripping and intimate thriller, with final shots that are sure to leave you more than a little shaken and stirred.
Big Bad Wolves opened the 26th annual Foyle Film Festival. For more information on the festival itself, check out www.foylefilmfestival.org.