When the decapitated body of a missing schoolgirl is discovered, she becomes just the latest victim in a string of vicious child murders that has rocked an otherwise sleepy Israeli suburb. All fingers point to an unassuming schoolteacher (Rotem Keinan), but when Miki (Lior Ashkenazi), an overzealous cop, attempts to beat a confession out of him, a video of the incident goes viral and he loses his badge. Determined to get his man, Miki turns vigilante, but soon discovers that the young girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), is also looking to inflict his own personal brand of justice.

After giving Israel its first ever horror film with 2010’s enthusiastically received Rabies, writer-directors Aharon Keshales and his former student-turned-collaborator Navot Papushado dissect the violent nature of their fellow countrymen once again in this brutal, yet darkly comic thriller. While Rabies presented violence as a contagious germ, capable of infecting men and women alike at a moment’s notice, Big Bad Wolves hones in specifically on men’s potential and predilection for brutality and sadism. Some critics have been quick to object to the film’s only female characters being either overbearing Jewish matriarchs or victimised fairy-tale heroines, but the film seems utterly disinterested in such observations.

Keshales and Papushado have been raised in a country in a perpetual state of seemingly fruitless conflict, so it comes as little surprise that the concept of violence begetting violence is handled with pitch-black gallows humour. Their characters understand the futility of their actions, but nevertheless proceed forward regardless, as if resigned to their own absurd, bloodstained fate as some rite-of-passage to underscore their masculinity. In fact much of the film’s humour comes from the witnessing how the protagonists repeatedly undermine their own vengeful plans through sheer single-minded stupidity.

One obvious but effective contradiction in Keshales and Paushado’s film is the comparison between how each interrogator, or abductor, treats their victim. Miki and Gidi both inflict violence in order to punish or extract information, while the film’s killer, conversely, pampers their victims as honoured houseguests – showering the young girls with food and gifts – and rendering them unconscious before commencing with their defilement.

While the message at the heart of Big Bad Wolves is straightforward, and resignedly bleak in it outlook on masculinity, the film remains incredibly engaging, and dare I say, enjoyable thanks to stylish, assured direction and a collection of impressively diverse yet committed performances. Keinan is wretched and snivelling throughout, while Ashkenazi’s brutish cop retains an air of the likeable everyman hero. It is Tzahi Grad and his world-weary father (Doval’e Glickman), however, who garner the most laughs even as they present the film’s most chilling threat of all.

In addition, Giora Bejach’s lush cinematography creates a graceful, elegant ambience, which is complemented wonderfully by Haim Frank Ilfman’s balletic score. The almost dreamlike tone of the film, especially in its opening moments, accentuate the filmmakers’ efforts to align themselves with the Brothers Grimm, only in this case they look to terrify the wolf rather than the children.

This review first appeared in Vérité Film Magazine December 2013