Ever the giddy cheerleader of stylized depravity, Quentin Tarantino has found a grisly new exploitation film to throw his weight behind. The Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves arrives Stateside with QT’s endorsement (“The best film of the year!”) splashed across its one sheet. Few would need to read his blurb, however, to suspect that this brutal, sometimes mordantly funny movie—about the punishment visited upon a suspected child murderer—would appeal to a director who once set the removal of an earlobe to a jaunty Stealers Wheel song. Big Bad Wolves can play that game, too: It’s got Buddy Holly crooning over the creation of a poison dessert, and a plot that essentially extends the torture scene of Reservoir Dogs to feature length. The difference is that, unlike Mr. Blonde, the chatty sadist here most definitely does care what his helpless captive knows or doesn’t know.
The title seems to promise a modern-day fairy tale, but after an ominously fanciful opening—in which a slow-motion game of hide-and-seek ends in the woodland abduction of a young girl—Big Bad Wolves becomes less Grimm than grimly comic. The child is found dead, and in more than one piece; the prime suspect, for reasons that seem shaky at best, is a timid schoolteacher (Rotem Keinan). Descending upon this possible scapegoat are two obsessed parties: The slain girl’s father (Tzahi Grad), mad with rage and sorrow, and a loose-cannon cop (Lior Ashkenazi, from Footnote and Late Marriage), who goes rogue after his first attempt to shake information out of the perp ends with a suspension. Into the woods these three men go, converging in the soundproof basement of a country cabin. Here the fun begins, as a potentially innocent person is subjected to the same agonies he’s said to have inflicted on his victim—nasty business involving fingers and toenails, plus the creative misuse of a blowtorch. (More shades of Tarantino there, though Pulp Fiction had the restraint not to show Marcellus Wallace put the flame to Zed.)
Believe it or not, some of this mayhem—muscularly orchestrated by directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, who made 2010’s Rabies—does provoke laughter. Big Bad Wolves often plays like a droll, accidental response to last year’s Prisoners, scrawling a crooked grin on that film’s desperate-measures scenario. Irreverence aside, though, it’s actually a less muddled treatise on “enhanced interrogation.” Though Wolves delays confirming the guilt or innocence of the abused accused, it becomes clear almost immediately that the real villain of this story is Grad’s vengeful patriarch—a man hell-bent on exacting revenge, whether the evidence supports his extreme crusade or not. There’s a none-too-subtle political dimension to the film’s bloodshed, caused by victims who have become the victimizers. (A lone Arab rider, literally situated on a high horse, trots by periodically to make the subtext more obvious.) Big Bad Wolves may take a bit too much glee in its barbarism to qualify as a bona fide critique of same. But its points about the misplacement of blame, and the morality of fitting punishment to crime, are never less than trenchant. Tarantino was right to champion the movie, though it’s odd to see his name attached to something so staunchly anti-retribution.