Questions about the efficacy of torture, and vengeance, are raised but never fully reckoned with by Big Bad Wolves, Israeli directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s thriller about the search for a pedophilic serial killer. Aided by two thugs, and acting out against his boss’s direct orders, police officer Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) is introduced roughing up Dror (Rotem Keinan), a schoolteacher whom Miki is sure is responsible for a string of monumentally horrific murders of young local girls. When that incident winds up on YouTube, Miki is suspended from the force, but, at his commander’s unsubtle suggestion, continues his pursuit of Dror—a plan that’s upended when one victim’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), grabs them both and takes them to his new, remote home, where he’s set up a basement torture chamber designed for Dror. Gidi wants to know the whereabouts of his daughter’s missing severed head, and coerces Miki into assisting him in his brutal inquisition. That sets in motion a scenario that, given Dror’s repeated claims of innocence regarding the crimes, the filmmakers aim to wield as a moral drama about the usefulness of violent interrogation, the means by which revenge turns the aggrieved into monsters, and the ultimate ability to decipher the truth.
From a purely suspenseful vantage point, Big Bad Wolves is an efficient and effective beast. Beyond a brief reference by Gidi to fairy tales, and a young abducted girl’s red shoe, Keshales and Papushado’s don’t underline the obvious titular metaphor. And though an early montage seemingly puts Miki, Gidi, and Dror on comparable footing, suggestions of moral equivalency are soon set aside once Miki has second thoughts about helping Gidi and, for his hesitation, is bound and gagged like Dror. While the viciousness of Gidi’s cross-examination methods are bluntly presented, and subtle digs at the police provide intermittent humor, the film proves primarily interested in mounting tension, not just through unexpected plot twists (such as a sudden visit from Gidi’s father), but also via cinematographic pans through corridors, zooms into close-up, and slow motion that eerily suggest further terrors to come. Still, by willfully denying viewers the very evidence against Dror that has unequivocally convinced Miki and Gidi, as well as Dror’s students, of his guilt, Big Bad Wolves severely undercuts any potential critique of Gidi’s murderous revenge—just as the film’s depiction of finger-smashing, toenail-ripping, chest-blowtorching cruelty for intense genre thrills ultimately weakens its halfhearted attempts to sincerely wrestle with the ethicality of eye-for-an-eye justice.