Back in 2009, “Let the Right One In,” a slick, deeply felt genre piece from a far away land, played the Tribeca Film Festival and blew almost everyone (this writer included) away. It’s hard not to think about “Let the Right One In” while watching “Big Bad Wolves,” a similarly slick foreign language thriller playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s questionable whether or not “Big Bad Wolves” will receive the kind of attention “Let the Right One In” did (its subject matter is significantly stickier than two young vampires falling in love), but it’s every bit the triumph that film was – it’s bold, beautifully told, and surprisingly funny.
The movie starts with a wordless, dreamy prologue that nods to the fairy tale nature of the film’s title – a trio of young children are playing hide and seek around what could comfortably be labeled a haunted cabin in the woods. As the children finish their game, they realize that one of them is missing (a lone shoe remains). The sequence is shot in a kind of fuzzy slow motion that lends their actions a kind of suspended-in-water sensation, which gives off the feeling that this is going to be the last truly wonderful moment any of these children have. (The sequence is punctuated with one of the greatest title cards in some time, the letters of the movie’s title spread limply atop the cabin, covered in moss and leaves, like it was part of a sign for some sad old motel.)
An eerie trail of candy leads the police to the decapitated body of the young girl, her underwear hauntingly tugged down around her ankles. It turns out she’s the latest in a series of child murders, and the lead detective Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) thinks that they’ve got their man – a nebbish weirdo name Dror (Rotem Keinan). The only problem is that Miki’s interrogation techniques, which can charitably be described as “extreme” (they involve the forceful application of a phone book to certain vital body parts), were caught on cell phone footage and leaked online. This causes Miki’s dismissal from the force, but not before his supervisor can suggest, in no uncertain terms, that he still keep an eye on Dror. Even if they can’t formally investigate him, everyone still believes that he’s responsible for the horrible murders (the heads of the children have never been discovered).
So with the investigation now in the hands of his incompetent contemporaries, Miki starts keeping tabs on Dror, following him wherever he goes. At the same time that we’re watching Miki stalk Dror, we also start following another character who is doing almost the exact same thing – Gidi (Tzahi Grad), an older gentleman with a cleanly bald head and big, seventies-era reading glasses. For a while you’re not sure who he is, exactly, since they never make it explicitly clear that Dror really is the killer. But as Miki’s investigation intensifies, he brings Dror out to a secluded patch of the woods and starts demanding answers while pointing a loaded gun at Dror’s head. That’s when Gidi intervenes; knocking both men unconscious and dragging them to a new home he’s just purchased specifically for the purposes of his dark deeds.
It turns out Gidi is the father of the girl that had just been murdered (he can be seen in an early scene but little attention is specifically paid to him). He wants his own revenge – and wants Miki to help him. And yes, there is a bit of torture involved. This is where the heart of “Big Bad Wolves” lies – with these three men, in an unfurnished basement. The moral implications are huge, obviously, as are the religions ones (since a Jewish body has to be complete for it to receive a traditionally proper burial), and the writing/directing team of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado know exactly how to strike the right balance between kicky exploitation thrills and deeply meditative interludes about the nature of humanity and evil. They also wisely avoid letting the movie ever feel like a play or something else that is unnecessarily contained – while there are only a handful of characters, references are made to what’s going on outside of the house, and things take a turn for the devilish when Gidi’s own father (Menashe Noy) shows up and starts giving his own advice on how to torture. He might as well stomp into the movie and say, “You call that torture, son? Back in my day…”
If this sounds like an uneasy mixture of tones and styles, it is. But, amazingly, Papushado and Keshales direct this thing beautifully, weaving dark humor and philosophical and political unrest through a piece that, in the wrong hands, could have been totally boilerplate. There are details and moments in the film that don’t just linger; they downright haunt. Some thrillers are described as being “edge of your seat” affairs, but with “Big Bad Wolves,” it’s more like you are hovering just beyond the chair, midair, waiting for the story to resolve itself. Everything in the film contains a wicked sense of humor, so that even the final shot of the movie, which at first seems almost unbearably bleak, also doubles as a sick joke. You can huff and puff all you want, but you can’t blow “Big Bad Wolves” down. [A]