Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Huffing and Puffing: Big Bad Wolves

Menashe Noy & Lior Ashkenazi in Big Bad Wolves

When it comes to genres, including movies, not all countries are created equal. Israeli cinema has received much deserved acclaim in recent years but the country’s best movies, or at least the ones that play commercially in North America, are usually dramas, with the odd lighter exception like The Band’s Visit. The few Israeli genre flicks I've seen haven’t impressed me all that much. Saint Clara (1996) was a Carrie-like horror movie about a telekinetic Russian girl newly immigrated to Israel which was chiefly interesting for its scathing portrait of juvenile delinquency in Israel and the fact that it was co-directed by Ari Folman, who would go on to make the brilliant animated anti-war movie Waltz with Bashir. (2008). Total Love (2000) was a fantastical cult film (in Israel) about the invention of the ultimate love drug that quickly devolved into incoherence if not outright silliness. Clean Sweep aka Mars Turkey (2001) was a profane and overly violent cops and crooks movie that wore out its welcome early on. A few years back, directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado concocted Rabies (2010), Israel’s’ first zombie film, which I didn't see but which garnered quite the reputation at home. Now the directing duo are back with Big Bad Wolves, a thriller that owes equal amounts to American classics like Joe (1970) and more recent torture porn movies like the Saw series, though it’s not nearly as exploitative as those films. It’s also, despite rave reviews from director Quentin Tarantino, who called it the best film of 2013,  and some other critics who put it on their ten best lists in the year end Film Comment issue, not nearly the revolutionary genre buster they’re calling it.

The film opens with three young girls playing hide and seek in the woods. Suddenly one of the girls goes missing. Religious studies teacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) is suspected of kidnapping her and when we first see him, is having the crap beaten out of him by two henchmen hired by violent cop Micki (Lior Ashkenazi). That incident is filmed on someone’s cellphone, uploaded to the Internet and in the spate of negative publicity that follows, results in Dror going free. Soon after, the missing girl is found, sexually assaulted and decapitated, prompting Micki, who was fired from his job (but who is still certain that Dror is the murderer) to take action again. But this time he has an accomplice, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the girl’s father, who is only too happy to join Micki in extracting a confession from the hapless teacher who may or may not be the guilty culprit. (He also wants his daughter's head retrieved so he can bury her properly.)

Tzahi Grad in Big Bad Wolves

Coincidentally bearing some similarities to the plot of last year’s Prisoners, Big Bad Wolves trods familiar cinematic territory, but except for a few scenes doesn’t offer much that is new. The fresh bits that do work involve elements specific to Jewish – Israeli life. There are Gidi's overbearing parents who, finding out that he has moved to an isolated house, so as to better torture Dror in private, interfere in his life by sending his dad (Doval'e Glickman) over with some soup – not chicken soup though. There's an enigmatic Arab villager, riding a horse, who keeps showing up, startling his new Jewish neighbours and wondering why Jews are always expecting Arabs to be violent threats to their safety. And there’s an unflattering portrait of Israeli society wherein Micki’s boss is more concerned that the video upload of Dror's beating makes the already tarnished reputation of the Israeli cops look even worse.

I wish that directors Keshales and Papushado had gone further in that local direction as much of the rest of the film is pretty generic. (I suspect that it was made, at least in part, to appeal to Western audiences. Though it's a Hebrew language movie, its opening credits are entirely in English. The subtitles, of course, will ensure that not that many English speakers will check it out. It certainly didn't play long in Toronto.). And they're not the most subtle directors though they pace the movie pretty well. There are also a few sharp lines – as when Micki and Gidi decide that their routine with Dror will consist of 'bad cop, bad cop', and some decent jokes, such as the idea that all the men in the film, who naturally serve in the military, have learned how to torture suspects in the army. That one's quirkily original. The acting is also pretty good – Tzahi Grad also starred in Clean Sweep - but Ashkenazi, so great as a put upon son in an overbearing Georgian - Jewish family in Late Marriage (2001) and as a troubled Mossad agent hunting a Nazi war criminal in Walk on Water (2004), two superior films offering better roles, is basically slumming it here. I’m glad that Big Bad Wolves doesn’t indulge in its torture, or use it as a turn on, though its main premise still reeks of exploitation.

All this means that the movie isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been and by the time it reaches its conclusion and twist ending – not a bad one, but not entirely plausible either, considering the movie’s timeline and the whereabouts of its characters – it has at least modestly entertained us. It’s no masterpiece, its excessive raves notwithstanding, just a moderately watchable time waster. No more and no less.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

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