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Review: Big Bad Wolves (Fantasia)

Jul. 29, 2013by: Chris Bumbray

PLOT: A renegade cop (Lior Ashkenazi) is convinced that the man behind a series of child murders is a quiet, humble schoolteacher (Rotem Keinan). His plot to force a confession is upended by the revenge-obsessed father (Tzahi Grad) of the latest victim, who kidnaps the suspect in the hopes of torturing him into revealing where he's hidden his daughter's remains.

REVIEW: After a week of reviewing movies at the Fantasia Film Festival I can confidently say that I've seen a lot of good movies- some VERY good- but so far I've only seen one truly great one. That  film- without a doubt- is BIG BAD WOLVES, by Israeli directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.   After reading the above plot synopsis, you'd probably never guess that BIG BAD WOLVES is a comedy, but in it's own dark and twisted way, it's probably the funniest film I've seen all year. Just think about that for a second. It's a movie about about two men who spend much of the film brutally torturing a presumed child murder. How could this possibly be funny? I don't know how they've done it, but I can honestly say that Keshales and Papushado are the only directors I can think of other than The Coen Bros., who've really ever had me simultaneously doubling over with laughter and averting my eyes and cringing in disgust and fear, all in the same scene.

To be sure, the premise is nothing new. Torture porn is a genre unto itself, and a recent Quebec movie, 7 DAYS, covered a lot of the same ground. Still, I've never seen anything quite like BIG BAD WOLVES, and I'm not sure it's a movie anyone but Keshales and Papushado could have possibly pulled off. Considering the way the co-directors deftly blend genres, with this simultaneously being a horror movie, thriller, police procedural, and near slapstick comedy, you'd never guess that this is only their second film (following their debut, Fantasia crowd-pleaser RABIES).

Right from the start, BIG BAD WOLVES impresses with it opening with an abduction sequence reminiscent of Fritz Lang's M, where three children play hide and seek under the opening credits, with no sound other than the Bernard Hermann-style musical score (by Frank Hayim Iifman), ending with one of the children disappearing, only to be found dead shortly after. Doesn't sound too funny does it? Making such a gruesome and horrific premise into a comedy is unfathomable, but damn if Keshales and Papushado haven't pulled it off.

It helps that for much of the film, you're never sure if the meek schoolteacher suspect is guilty or not. With him played by the kind-looking, milquetoast Rotem Keinan, you sure don't want him to be guilty, as you can help but sympathize with his plight. The nominal hero (if such a thing exists in this movie) is Lior Ashkenazi's rogue cop, who's been dismissed from the force after a clip of him brutalizing Keinan is uploaded on to YouTube. Ashkenazi is apparently one of the biggest stars in Israel, and he looks like a cross between Clive Owen and a buff, bad-ass version of Steve Carell. While the protagonist, Keshales and Papushado never allow him to be too heroic, to the point that upon discovering the horrifically mutilated body of the girl abducted in the film's opening, he seems to have no reaction at all, despite being a father himself. His abduction of Keinan seems less motivated by justice, and more a desperate act to prove that he's been right all along about who the real bad guy is, and a way to redeem himself and save his job. It's a superb performance, and I can't imagine any North American movie stars who would dare play it so ambiguously.

The murdered girl's father is an even more interesting character, with him being an ex-Israeli commando turned middle-aged businessman, consumed by guilt, but again, allowing himself to be utterly convinced by flimsy, circumstantial evidence. Tzahi Grad's performance is fascinating, with him staying utterly stoic throughout, and never depicting any kind of real emotion. Dov Glickman, who plays his elderly father, steals every scene he's in, when he starts to take over the interrogation, while fielding cellphone calls from his overbearing wife.

Again though, none of this sounds particularly funny does it? Somehow it is, and even when poor Rotem Keinan is being flayed alive by our possibly misguided heroes (whether they are or not isn't revealed until the very end, and the answer is never obvious) you'll be laughing despite yourself.  To  say this is a dark comedy is a vast understatement. FARGO and BARTON FINK are dark comedies. BIG BAD WOLVES is an absolutely pitch-black one. It's a must-see, and very, very likely the best film in the entire festival.  

Extra Tidbit: That said, there's still more than a week to go.

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