The recent “Prisoners” was a meditation of sorts on the morality of torture, and in that respect it has an unexpected companion piece in the slickly arresting Israeli thriller “Big Bad Wolves.” Writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado bring an impressive polish to this grisly tale of one man’s hunt for the sicko who raped and murdered his daughter, but the filmmakers’ undeniable chops and bizarre tonal shifts fail to transform the material into anything more than a stylishly gruesome exercise. The personal endorsement of Quentin Tarantino has already ensured this well-traveled festival sensation a measure of attention in advance of its upcoming Jan. 17 release through Magnolia genre label Magnet, likely to translate into decent returns from audiences intrigued by the prospect of a commercial genre movie from the region.
The opening credits play over a game of hide-and-seek, shot in ominous slo-mo and set to a lush, foreboding score by Moshe Edery. A tone of dread thus established, a young girl’s decapitated body is soon found in the woods, the latest victim in a string of grisly child murders. The detective in charge of the investigation, Miki (Lior Ashkenazi), suspects the culprit is Dror (Rotem Keinan), a shy, nebbishy schoolteacher who at once does and doesn’t fit the average perception of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When Miki pays two cronies to beat up Dror in order to force a confession, the whole nasty episode is secretly caught on video and quickly goes viral.
It’s clear enough from this development, which ends up losing Miki his job, that Keshales and Papushado mean to inject a note of social commentary into these grim proceedings. It becomes even clearer when Gidi (Tzahi Grad), a large, imposing man and the father of the most recent victim, kidnaps Miki and Dror, ties them up, and stashes them in a remote, sound-proofed hideaway. Like Miki, Gidi means to extract a confession from Dror, only he’s willing to go much, much farther to get it, and he proceeds to inflict on Dror the very acts of mutilation that the killer forced upon his own victims, with Miki, no stranger to the ways of vigilante justice, as a half-hearted sort of accomplice.
It’s here that “Big Bad Wolves” turns squirm-inducingly violent (viewers who get off on extracted toenails and hammered body parts will receive more than their fill), reveling in a sadistic spectacle that is also served up as a rather dubious moral illustration — a warning of the evil that good men can do in the name of retribution and justice. But as if to neutralize the tale’s excruciating intensity and throw the viewer further off-balance, the filmmakers also play this hideous extended setpiece for laughs, with Gidi regularly interrupted mid-torture — first by a series of concerned phone calls, then by a visit from his father (Dov Glickman), who gets his own twisted role to play in the proceedings.
Dror’s horrified denials, screams and pleas for mercy aside (Keinan expertly maintains the viewer’s sympathy without completely dampening the possibility that Dror may be guilty), all this is performed with a bone-dry detachment that frustrates any real emotional investment in the scenario. That’s particularly true with regard to Grad’s stone-faced performance as Gidi, a ruthless punisher who doesn’t entirely convince as a grief-stricken father. (Sean Penn in “Mystic River” he isn’t, despite an equivalent corpse-discovery scene.) With its philosophical pretensions and distancing humor, “Big Bad Wolves” almost begs to be read as a metaphor, perhaps for Israel’s own ugly history of torture, even if the ramifications are scarcely applicable to any one state. The film’s lone Arab character, appearing for a brief moment of levity late in the third act, seems intended to defuse any real political tension the story might arouse.
Keshales and Papushado have upped their technical game since their 2010 slasher thriller “Rabies.” The filmmaking, from Chilik Michaeli’s precise widescreen framing to Tami Leon’s vivid production design, is rarely less than impeccable, even if the film itself winds up feeling fairly bloodless, mocking its own seriousness and then trying, rather too late, to reinstate it. It’s easy enough to understand why Tarantino, a master at blending genre thrills and provocative ideas, might have felt inclined to name “Big Bad Wolves” the year’s best film, a ridiculous claim that sells his own work rather short; this self-admiring provocation is no match for that director’s grisly parables of comeuppance.