The best endorsement any director can hope for is to have Quentin Tarantino call his revenge-thriller the best movie of the year, which is what happened when Big Bad Wolves screened at the Busan Film Festival. Tarantino’s hearty approval is a marketing campaign all on its own — his blurb adorns the movie’s posters — but it also sets up certain expectations. You expect something far different and better than the same-old.
But although Big Bad Wolves, which was written and directed by the Israeli team of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, is undeniably stylish and creepy, the movie is also empty and derivative. The film is essentially a three-character piece between a schoolteacher (Rotem Keinan) accused of having raped and mutilated a little girl, a cop (Lior Ashkenazi) who is convinced the suspect is guilty despite the lack of any evidence, and the girl’s grieving father (Tzahi Grad), who is intent on exacting an elaborate revenge.
The three men end up inside a basement in a remote cabin, where the father proceeds to torture the teacher the same way he supposedly tortured his victim while the cop is forced to bear witness, handcuffed and unable to interfere. Much bone-breaking and toenail-removal ensues. Keshales and Papushado get a kick out of making the audience squirm from the threat of violence, then stun you by showing the act instead of looking away. The second half of Big Bad Wolves seems to have been inspired by the ear-slicing scene from Reservoir Dogs, complete with dashes of unexpectedly dark humor (maybe that’s why Tarantino loved the film so much). The movie also pulls off the clever trick of keeping you guessing about the teacher’s guilt: Yes, he seems mousy and ordinary and incapable of such gruesome acts. But isn’t that what people often say about serial killers after they’re caught?
Shot in beautiful widescreen, Big Bad Wolves is a rare entry in pure genre for Israeli cinema. But there’s little to the movie other than shocks and gross-outs: The story is so thin, a new character enters the film in the third act as a way to keep the picture going long enough to reach feature-length. The infamous torture sequence in Reservoir Dogs was just a few minutes long and one of that film’s countless moments of grim, sometimes grisly pleasures. Big Bad Wolves has little going on other than the theme of whether evil in the name of justice is justifiable — a point it hammers again and again, like the vengeful father does to the schoolteacher’s hands.
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, Tzahi Grad, Dov Glickman
Writer-directors: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado.
Producers: Tami Leon, Chilik Michaeli, Avraham Pirchi.
A Magnet Releasing release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, heavy violence, gore, adult themes. In Hebrew with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.