Equal parts police procedural, horror-comedy, and pitch-black fairy tale, “Big Bad Wolves” tells the story of a suspected killer and the men that kidnap him to extract a confession – by any means necessary.
After paving the way for Israeli horror cinema with their 2010 slasher-horror flick “Rabies,” motion picture trailblazers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado are back on the festival circuit with the outrageously entertaining “Big Bad Wolves.”
It begins when Miki (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli police detective, detains Dror (Rotem Keinan) – a quiet and squirrelly school teacher suspected of capturing, assaulting, and murdering young girls. Miki’s boss asks him if they are “questioning” or “questioning questioning” the suspect. A sharp whack of a phonebook to the suspects face points to the latter. When a video of the off-the-books questioning procedure is leaked online, Miki is forced to step down to the traffic department and Dror goes free. Shortly after, another girl turns up brutally murdered and Miki goes rogue in attempt to bring Dror to justice, only to find that the young victim’s father (Tzahi Grad) has his own, much darker plans for the suspected pedophile. Together, they kidnap the kidnapper.
After all the quiet, serene, independent films playing at the Chicago International Film Festival, it’s more than a little bit of fun to take a break with something fantastical and larger-than-life like “Big Bad Wolves.” The film recently garnered a valuable endorsement from Quentin Tarantino when the famous director championed this Israeli thriller as the best film of the year. From the first image on screen, that appraisal makes perfect sense. Snappy-stylish camera work, monologue-driven dialogue, and a sharp balance of violence and dark humor – this is a Tarantino film (with a fifth of the budget and an Israeli twist).
“Big Bad Wolves” opens with the scarcely used full title sequence featuring a visual prologue to the film. A game of hide and seek plays out in slow motion over a rich, ominous score. A girl hides in a closet, but when her friends open the door only her bright red shoes remain. The beginning of a dark fairy tale in which each character is more evil than the last. Before long, Keshales and Papushado’s film has the near-capacity theater laughing out loud during graphic torture scenes.
Many in the audience expressed surprise after the screening at how impressive these actors are. Unknown to American audiences, Tzahi Grad’s performance as the father of one of the murderer’s victims is as brilliant as any this year, inspiring fear one moment and laughter the next. Israeli newcomer Rotem Keinan plays our suspect and carries the great weight of the film’s moral ambiguity. A firm denier of any wrong-doing, Dror’s did-he-or-didn’t-he mystery being explored throughout the film works so well because of Keinan’s ability to manipulate the audience to condemn him to hell one moment and hope for his safety the next. It’s never clear whether we are watching a witch-hunt or the pursuit of true, violent, gory justice.
A minor Israeli-Arab political undercurrent won’t find much connection with American audiences, but in most regards “Big Bad Wolves” doesn’t fall far from the tree that shook out “The Big Lebowski” and “Inglorious Basterds.” “Big Bad Wolves” is a hilarious, disturbing, genre-heavy gateway to foreign cinema for English-speaking audiences and likely to be one of the most cinematic and outwardly enjoyable films at any festival it plays.
Note: “Big Bad Wolves” will open in the U.S. in limited release on January 17th, 2014.
Selections from the post-screening Q&A with Aharon Keshales
Q: You’re known for creating the first slasher films coming out of Israel, right? So can you talk a little bit about how they’re being received in Israel?
A: We’re like the…kind of family member you don’t invite to your dinner. We’re like this strange animal; nobody knows what to do with us in Israel. That was the case with “Rabies,” especially. We decided to be the first; nobody makes these kinds of films in Israel because there’s no [financial] support for this kind of film. So we decided to take matters into our own hands and be the first pioneers and we convinced a producer to do it independently and then when we had the rough cut and showed it to a state-supported fund, they gave us the money to finish our film. That was the case with our first one, and the second one was easier because of the international success of “Rabies.” We got money even in the script phase and then we made “Big Bad Wolves.” As for the reception, I think that with “Rabies” it was a lot of the younger critics who really adored the film and really appreciated the revolution we were trying to conceive in Israel. With “Big Bad Wolves” it was acknowledged phenomenally, its been five weeks at the top of the Israeli critics table. It kicked “Jurassic Park 3D” and such films as like “Prisoners” which is very much like “Big Bad Wolves” – we are very in love with pedophiles in our country. [laughs] And we were nominated for 11 Israeli Oscars and we won five. [applause]
Q: What’s been your biggest challenge transferring from an Israeli audience to an American audience?
A: I have to say that Americans love their movies even more than Israelis; I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I think you know your genre better than the Israeli – Israeli people don’t go to see many genre films. I think when we get to travel the world with our films, something magical happens, because when we did “Rabies” it’s like a slasher film turned upside down, and when we did this one it’s like a revenge film upside down – we have two guys kidnapping the kidnapper. So I think when you guys see this kind of film, you have a better knowledge of what rules we are breaking and things we are doing to lower you into thinking you’re going to see the same typical film about a vindictive father or a vigilante cop and then we are surprising you. When we pitched the film in Israel we told everybody that we were going to do “Dirty Harry” wanders by mistake into a Korean revenge film written by the Brothers Grimm. When I say that in this kind of audience you know exactly what I mean by that but in Israel they’re still learning the genre, the horror trope.
So when we get to travel abroad we see the kind of audience we write the pictures for. As for us, when we sit in an audience in America…you laugh all the time. You have a twisted mind, I don’t know why. For us it’s like sitting at home. I grew up on 80’s movies, 70’s movies, 90’s movies – all American stuff.
Q: Can you talk about the amazing opening sequence with the children?
A: We knew we wanted to have this three minutes of fairy tale – ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ – which would be the last three minutes of naivety and optimism in the film. …So it would all be shot in slow motion, with beautiful scenery, beautiful mis en scene, beautiful clothing. From there, the innocence is gone and we’re going for a thrill ride.
Q: I thought the actors were really great, are they established in Israel?
A: Actually yes, Lior Ashkenazi, who plays the cop has been in very substantial Israeli films in the past decade. He was in “Late Marriage,” he was in “Foot Note” which was our nominee for the Oscars two years ago. He was also in our first film “Rabies”. He is like our, if you like, George Clooney. Tzahi Grad, who plays the father, is a really great dramatic actor – I think he is the best dramatic actor living in Israel right now. I would compare him to a Daniel Day-Lewis – he can do anything. As for the grandfather, Doval’e Glickman, he is Israel’s most-known comedian. He is like – if you have “Monty Python” – he is like our John Cleese. He hasn’t been filmed for twenty or more years so it’s like his biggest comeback ever, and with a blowtorch no less. And he’s even crazier in real life.
The youngest actor in the cast, which I love and adore, is the assumed criminal and he is like a fresh face because we wanted big names for the other characters, but we wanted a fresh face for this role because we didn’t want an Israeli audience to have any connotations to the actor – it would be blank, you would not know if he did it or didn’t do it. It’s like the kind of things they did with Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects.”
Q: I thought this film had such aggressive foley work – the punches and sound effects. And some of the scariest thunder I’ve ever heard. What was your approach to the sound design?
A: Loud. That was the approach. I think you have two possibilities as a film director. One is to show everything – and I mean, like Eli Roth with “Hostel.” Or “Irreversible” by Gaspar Noé – When you see the fire extinguisher running through the face of a victim and you show it all and you’re like ‘ugh.’ Or if you like the sound better, which I like it better, you can use the sound to have the same reaction because if you take a hammer in long shot and he hammers him [on the knuckles] like three times and you have a smashing sound and feel the bones cracking, you would have the same reaction as an audience, you don’t need to show it. You can just hear it, and I got this idea from “Alien” when Ridley Scott talks about the sound design. He puts, in a subliminal kind of way, all the sounds from your dentist because he knows you hate the dentist so he designed this screeching noise you would normally relate to your visit to the dentist in order to scare you. If you use sound design in this way you don’t need to show a lot of make-up effects. As for the thunder, I just wanted to see you jump.
Q: Can you talk about your work with the cinematographer?
A: Our DP is Giora Bejach – he is one of Israeli’s best cinematographers. We approached him after we saw a film named “Lebanon.” The entire film, “Lebanon,” happens inside a tank so when we saw that and we knew we were going to have a film located half inside a basement, we knew we have to have a cinematographer with a great eye for clausterphobia and small space. When we approached him, he said “Okay, but I don’t want to make it like “Lebanon” and we said “Wait, but we brought you because of “Lebanon”” and he said, “No, I don’t want to do it. I want to go the other way around – I want to build a set, and I want to shoot it with the wide lens in cinemascope. I want to show the scope of the room and use darkness to entrap the characters.
When we approached the film we knew it was going to be a very large scale kind of film – it would have an epic feeling to it, especially for Israeli cinema which is always so little and has no bigger-than-life music like in here. That’s the loudest you’ll ever get from Israel. We wanted to have a large scale kind of film like the films of Sergio Leone.
Q: What were some of your inspirations for “Big Bad Wolves”?
A: Tarantino, of course…I like it when he is doing a genre piece and then he tries to always sneak in the reality. When they drive the car and they have this guy in the back and they shoot him by mistake from a bump, it’s like you have a perfect gangster-genre film but then reality gets in the way…The same can be said about the Coen Brothers – they look at a scene and they just deteriorate it minute by minute.
As for Breaking Bad, which I think is the best TV show in years, I actually sat down to write “Big Bad Wolves” after I saw the brilliant episode where Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are stuck with the fly – one location, two great actors, two great characters, fifty minutes… Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Korean films, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos. I think that’s all you need to know about genre filmmaking.