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Dustin Putman

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Big Bad Wolves  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, Tzahi Grad, Dov Glickman, Menashe Noy, Dvir Benedek, Nati Kluger, Kais Nashif, Ami Weinberg, Guy Adler, Arthur Perry, Gur Bentwich, Yuval Nadborany, Bar Mintely.
2014 – 109 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of an R for strong bloody violence and sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 17, 2014.
A dangerous serial killer is on the loose in a would-be idyllic Israeli town, the victims all young girls found sexually assaulted and missing their heads. As a firestorm of rumors and hearsay sweeps through the community, Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), a renegade former police detective, becomes convinced religious studies schoolteacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) is the culprit. In the midst of abducting Dror, vigilante-style, Gidi (Tzazi Grad) sweeps in and takes command of the situation. His daughter's body has just been found, and he is determined to yank from Dror the location of her decapitated head by torturing him exactly as he allegedly did his child. Micki initially agrees to be his accomplice—Gidi tells him he's either with him or against him—then has second thoughts about their captor's guilt when he learns he has an 8-year-old daughter of his own. By this point, though, there may be no turning back.

An unforgiving crime yarn with sneaky spurts of humor scrawled with charcoal, "Big Bad Wolves" is grippingly uncomfortable but not unpleasant. Writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado refresh their narrative's anticipated trajectory every fifteen minutes or so, averting expectations while taking things in provocative new directions. Despite what the title might suggest, this is no traditional fairy tale. Within the framework of a realistic story that could frighteningly happen anywhere at any time, however, wickedly sly coincidences and twists typify its loosely fabled inspiration. Adding to the askew, faintly fanciful tone is a slow-motion game of hide and seek underscored in menace during the opening credits, characters who reveal themselves to not be who they seem, and even a drugged cake that better be watched closely lest it end up enticing the wrong person's taste buds.

With the exception of a solitary scene involving a gruff police chief (Dvir Benedek) and his chip-off-the-old-block son (Yuval Nadborany) that oversteps too broadly, directors Keshales and Papushado balance upon a precarious tightrope that welcomes tinges of absurdist comedy without falling into poor taste. They delight in making their audience squirm, blurring the lines between protagonist and antagonist and never tipping their hat on how the viewer should be feeling about the dismayingly painful actions taking place on the screen. Looking like Clive Owen's brother, Lior Ashkenazi has a ruggedly commanding leading-man quality as Micki, stuck in the middle between a man out for revenge and another facing near-certain death for murders he might not have committed. Tzazi Grad, as Gidi, affectingly conveys the anger of a father who has prematurely lost his child and is looking to unleash the full breadth of his bottled-up emotions on a guy he has chosen is a reprehensible monster. The toughest role falls upon Rotem Keinan, whose Dror is labeled a pariah by the people around him but adamant that he is innocent of the damning accusations. Strapped to a chair in the basement of Gidi's new isolated home, Keinan gives Dror a lonesome sincerity that intensifies with every bone broken and toenail torn off. His is a complex performance kept intentionally close to the vest.

Are Micki and Gidi doing what's right by taking the law into their own hands and posing as judge and jury? If Dror is, indeed, responsible for the brutal slayings of these kids, he deserves whatever terrible things are coming to him. That they do not have concrete evidence that he is guilty should be enough to give them pause. For Micki, eventually, it does, but Gidi is resolute in not budging from his beliefs. The moralistic gray area envelops the black and white as "Big Bad Wolves" heads toward a conclusion that perhaps too finitely answers its overall mystery when one that had remained open to interpretation would have left things on a starker note more open for debate. Prior to this closing revelation—which, it should be said, has its own hauntingly sticky insinuations—the film is pretty fantastic for the strong-willed, a darkly impish, whimsically offbeat thriller of layered originality and subjective bite.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman