Quentin Tarantino’s claim that the Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves was the best movie of 2013 is patently absurd, but at least it drew attention to a movie that might otherwise have been largely ignored in this country. The hyperbole worked on me. I scored a look at Big Bad Wolves on its DVD release a few weeks ago, and I was impressed enough to check out the first movie by the two obviously talented Israeli filmmakers — Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado — who co-wrote and directed it.
Let’s start with their first film. Released in 2010, Rabies initially looks like another riff on the familiar trope of a maniac loose in the woods. The opening scene introduces us to a brother and sister who have fled their home, only to run into big trouble in a remote forest. Into the mix come two young couples on a tennis outing that goes dreadfully awry. Arriving on their heels is a pair of cops — but they’re not coming to the rescue. Two forest rangers are also poking around, for worse rather than better.
Rabies has enough twists to sate even the most jaundiced genre fan. The originality, unfortunately, does not extend to the characters, who are far more stereotypical than the story. Nonetheless, Rabies is more atypical than not, something that cannot be said of most freshman ventures in the genre.
Big Bad Wolves marks a considerable leap forward. While utilizing many of the first film’s techniques — black humor, violence, plot twists — Wolves brings intelligence and depth to its characterization, and even some political awareness to the theme.
Basically a revenge tale infused with torture porn (think Saw or Hostel), Wolves is the story of a suspected child-killer who is abducted and interrogated (to put it politely!) by police officials, including the father of one of the hideously brutalized victims. Because Keshales and Papushado rely so heavily on narrative surprises, it would be criminal to reveal more than that here.
The film also includes a wry nod to Israeli-Arab attitudes, typified by the Israeli protagonists’ general contempt, or at least disregard, for their “less civilized” neighbors. In context, such disparagement is clearly ironic. Indeed, both Wolves and Rabies seem to skewer the Israeli authorities, as typified by the police officials and military types who tend to be comic, incompetent and/or vicious.
Keshales and Papushado exhibit a deft touch with the camera as well as the script, particularly in Wolves. The film captures moments of lyric innocence, especially with the children, which only offset the grim realities that surround them. Among the filmmakers’ arsenal of tricks, clever editing supplements the narrative twists, propelling the story beyond the dialogue.
With titles like Rabies and Big Bad Wolves, it might be tempting to pigeonhole these two young filmmakers' works in the horror/thriller genre. Maybe for now. Here’s hoping, however, they continue to stretch the borders of conventional definition.