If you’ve ever seen a vigilante movie, the following plot description might ring some bells: a little girl is missing and the main suspect is caught by the police but is quickly released due to a lack of evidence. Soon after his release, the agonizing father of the angelic-looking girl decides to take the law into his hands and kidnaps the suspect. What ensues is a cinematic symphony of physical and psychological torture which, in its most disturbing moments, challenges our rooted conceptions of right and wrong, good and bad, and justified and unjustified violence.
This plot description fits at least two films made in 2013: The first is the commercially successful American thriller Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano; the second is the Israeli genre-bending festival hit Big Bad Wolves (which was released in the U.S. on January 17, 2014), directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado and starring Tzahi Grad, Lior Ashkenazi, and Rotem Keinan.
While Prisoners is a gripping, morbid, and suspenseful whodunit full of plot twists, torture scenes, and graphic violence, Big Bad Wolves is a mashup of Fargo-inspired dark comedy and gore movies like Saw, Hostel, and their countless doppelgangers. The result is almost certainly the most graphically violent Israeli movie ever made. Big Bad Wolves is different from recent Israeli war movies such as Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (2007), Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), and Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (2009), which depict their violent subject matter from a safe distance by using aesthetic techniques like animation or discrete camerawork (such as exclusive soldiers’ point-of-view shots that render the enemy distant and invisible). However, much like the gore genre from which it draws inspiration, Big Bad Wolves offers its viewers a celebration of dismemberment, blood, and suffering, inviting us to gaze at the torture via close-ups and long takes.
Big Bad Wolves, which has been screened in numerous festivals and touted by Quentin Tarantino as “the best movie of 2013,” is not just another war movie coming from the Middle Eastern conflict zone. Instead, it signifies a new cinematic trend that renders the nation’s troubling political reality as subtext rather than the text, creating a multi-layered structure in which a political reading is only one possible interpretation. For viewers who have no interest in the occupation or the recent history of Israel and Palestine, Big Bad Wolves offers a surprisingly appealing juxtaposition of torture, abduction, and rivers of blood intertwined with many comical moments, jokes, and word-plays. While a father named Gidi (Grad) is busy torturing Dror (Keinan), a high-school teacher who allegedly kidnapped and murdered his daughter, Gidi’s father suddenly drops by with a homemade chicken soup to make sure his 40-something son will have a healthy dinner. In the meantime, a cop named Miki (Ashkenazi) is contemplating whether to help Gidi torture the main suspect—repeatedly claiming he is innocent—or to arrest the ultra-violent father whose torture techniques grow increasingly creative.
On the surface, Big Bad Wolves is a psychological thriller like Prisoners and other vigilante movies, blurring the distinction between good and evil to the point where it is impossible to determine who is more dangerous and psychotic: the vengeful father or the alleged pedophile. However, the fact that it tells a story of an Israeli ex-I.D.F. commander who is using his military weapon to kidnap a (possibly) innocent man and lock him in the basement of his isolated cabin (significantly located in a far-away village “surrounded by Arabs,” as Gidi himself stresses) invites us to read the movie as a political allegory.
Jokes and fun aside, Big Bad Wolves presents us with a tale of gradually escalating violence: Gidi’s methods are turning more and more sadistic and cruel as the plot progresses, culminating in a difficult-to-watch scene that involves a burner, bare skin, and state-of-the-art make up. Within the Israeli context, this escalation can be associated with a conflict moving from one war/terror attack/military operation to the next.
Yet, unlike the recent successful “Israeli New Wave,” which consisted mainly of war movies, Big Bad Wolves does not take place on the battlefield. Instead, it shows how the ongoing conflict turns the Israeli society itself into an extension of the battlefield: a place where violence is conceived as a much-needed survival mechanism. In that sense, Big Bad Wolves is a movie about Israelis, not Palestinians.
It might be more useful to situate Big Bad Wolves within the broader context of other recent Israeli films, from Keshales’s and Papushado’s low-budget horror film Rabies (2010), to Yuval Mendelson’s and Nadav Hollander’s dark comedy Cats on a Pedal Boat (2011), to the first-ever Israeli zombie movie, Eitan Gafni’s Cannon Fodder (2013), and even more conventional dramas like Tom Shoval’s Youth (2013) and Jonathan Gurfinkel’s Six Acts (2013). Taken together, these works demonstrate that young Israeli filmmakers are using violence in more sophisticated and multi-layered ways. This trend attests to the maturation of the local industry, which until now has limited itself to a small number of plot genres (mainly family dramas and war movies;). An abduction film such as Youth or a zombie-parody like Cannon Fodder indicate that emerging Israeli filmmakers are looking for new ways to express their ideas.
In the new Israeli cinema, the characters of soldiers with P.T.S.D.—embodying Israeli movies to the point of cliché—are replaced by policemen, teenagers, 20-something hipsters and, for the first time, Hebrew-speaking zombies. But the fact that none of these movies deal directly with the occupation should not confuse us. Despite their differences, taken together these works show that violence in contemporary Israeli cinema carries a saliently political dimension even if words like “Palestinians,” “occupation,” or “conflict” do not appear in any of the screenplays.
As Big Bad Wolves brilliantly shows, even seemingly normal citizens (not to mention loving fathers) might hide a body in their cellar. Highlighting the specific national context in which this work was made can serve to read its moral lesson anew. In a country where every 18-year-old is conscripted for a three-years-long military service, violence is not merely an underlying threat that might burst in extreme circumstances (such as hunting down a pedophile); it is, rather, a way of life, a form of behavior and a dominant tone of discourse. In this fairy tale, there is no big bad wolf. Instead, the Israeli-Palestinian forest is a breeding ground for countless wolves, and one could never know for sure when they will show their true nature.
NETA ALEXANDER is a doctoral student in the department of Cinema Studies at N.Y.U. She earned her M.A. in film studies from Columbia University, writing a thesis on cinematic depictions of suicide. She is also the New York-based cultural correspondent and film critic of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.