Cakes, Hammers and Basements

Israel's Big Bad Wolves features the sort of dark, gruesome and funny film Tarantino fans should appreciate

Quentin Tarantino called Big Bad Wolves the best film of 2013. While I wouldn't go that far, I will declare it last year's best horror film, and a tremendous feat of filmmaking by directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. It's the sort of twisted, strangely funny and disturbing film I would expect to see atop a Tarantino list.

The movie has a cake-baking sequence mere minutes after one of the protagonists (yes, protagonists) busts up a man's hands with a hammer. And that baking sequence is set to Buddy Holly's "Everyday" in English even though the rest of the Israeli film is in Hebrew. Man, this movie is strange.

I called this movie a tremendous feat in directing because Keshales and Papushado prove themselves the sort of directors who can go from a dude screaming as the bones in his hands are demolished to depicting the hammer wielder happily cake-baking, and make that transition seamless. They also have figured out how to wring laughter out of a movie that features child abductions and murders, extreme torture and police beatings. Somehow, this movie is funny. Again, hats off to Keshales and Papushado.

The movie starts with a slow-motion, visually beautiful and majestic depiction of three kids playing hide-and-seek as the credits roll. One young girl goes into a wardrobe and closes the door, only to disappear when the seeker checks the spot.

The film then jumps to a warehouse beating of Dror (Rotem Keinan), a suspect in the girl's disappearance at the mercy of Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), a police detective who carries a phone book around in his gym bag, and that phone book isn't for referencing phone numbers. Micki and his underlings get carried away with their interrogation and are forced to let the suspect go when they get caught misbehaving.

The girl winds up dead in the forest, and Micki becomes further convinced of Dror's guilt. We get a quick glimpse of Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the girl's father, who is distraught at the murder scene. Micki is thrown off the case, and must pursue Dror (a Bible studies teacher) vigilante style.

A series of events leads to Dror, bound and gagged in the basement of a secluded house that Gidi has purchased for the sole means of torturing his daughter's suspected murderer. Micki is cast into the situation after his own attempt at interrogation is rudely interrupted by Gidi's shovel.

The three partake in a grueling session of psychological and physical torture aimed at revealing the murderer of Gidi's daughter and other children.

Dror, Gidi and Micki all make for good, classic suspects in the child murders. Dror, a nebbish type with a young daughter of his own, seems too innocuous to be innocent. Gidi, a former member of the Lebanese army, is a little too sick in his torture methods to be completely exonerated of suspicion. Micki, although relatively good-natured and perhaps moral, has a sadistic side for sure.

They are all fathers of young girls going through marital strife, they are all suspicious in their own way, and they all had me guessing as to which one was the culprit until the very end of the film. Again, major props to Keshales and Papushado, who also wrote the inventive screenplay.

Gidi's father drops by unexpectedly and decides to help out by employing a blowtorch to Dror's chest. The smelly aftermath leads to a small monologue about missing the smell of burnt flesh after the wife has turned him into a vegetarian due to high cholesterol. Father and son have a warm moment as they reminisce about Gidi's fondness for hot dogs. This is that kind of movie.

This film wouldn't work if any of these actors were off by one beat. Keinan is especially good at garnering sympathy while possibly depicting one of the worst kinds of people to ever walk the planet. This is a film where the torturer who has lost his child and the cop trying to bring the murderer to justice are, more or less, the bad guys.

Ashkenazi, an actor I've enjoyed before in films like Footnote and Walk on Water, makes for a very likable dirty cop. Grad is captivating as a parent who has lost all of his morality in the wake of his child's death. In many ways, he's one of last year's great screen monsters, even if he's supposed to be one of the good guys.

When Tarantino steps up and calls something the best, you know that on top of being great, it must be totally sick in the head. Big Bad Wolves is great, and as sick as sick can be.

It's also a reminder that if you are in a house where major torture is taking place, you might avoid eating baked goods from the fridge when the host steps out momentarily to search for severed heads.

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