It’s interesting that a sequence of genre pieces have bubbled into the cultural limelight in such a way to become essential viewing. That’s not been the case in a while, if indeed it ever was, with many intersecting TV series and films sharing ample subject matter. Take for instance the pronounced similarity between the BBC’s hit series Broadchurch and HBO’s wonderful crime drama True Detective (which stars Matthew McConaughey and will only buy more track for his Oscar train), which chronicle murder investigations in close-knit communities. Hell, throw both versions of The Killing into the mix. The time it takes with character, rather than with process and procedure, is also an invention to this new breed of cop dramas. These are the products of a post-Zodiac (2007) world, since, once it became the critic’s darling that it had, there was no excuse good enough not to focus on the people behind the investigations as much as the investigation itself. Fincher’s opus begins as a meticulous study of crime investigation that fetishizes police report documents in the same way Brian De Palma fetishizes the female form, only for the film to eventually emerge as a character study. You couldn’t think about the procedural the same way again, and many of these updated conventions bleed over to a subgenre of the crime thriller: the missing child. Oft-seen on Law and Order or CSI, it’s had a resurgence as of late with the excellent and underrated Prisoners (2013), with which the film of the hour shares more than a little.
All of this brings us to Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film that made rounds at multiple film festivals (including Chicago, but I missed it) and received significant notice for Quentin Tarantino naming it his best of the year (he later went on to say that was Spring Breakers, however). Following a string of murder cases, a little girl goes missing, and so kicks off a police investigation that eventually leads to the prime suspect being hunted and captured. By whom and in what way won’t be spoiled here even if they’re seen as the premise by trailers and the press. Of the many unique attributes Big Bad Wolves carries, the first can be seen on the poster. It was co-directed and co-written by two friends, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, which, if their hope was that their collaboration would give their film an added dynamism or color, it was a success. Look no further than the opening of the piece, an opera of humungous horns and stinging strings—music to underscore a three minute long sequence of children playing hide and seek, all in sustained slow motion. It’s haunting, and they work as dramatic irony: we know something is coming when the characters do not. To let the scene last so long risks exploiting the audience, but that’s the point. We bask in their elation just long enough to feel the ache of loss at the scene’s end. It’s a triumph of an opening scene, made with the steady and sure hand (in this case, a pair of hands) of an artist who knows what the film needs.
Much of the film plays out in that manner, albeit not always with such grandiosity, with a sure-sighted focus on bolstering the genre trappings with an artful gaze and a delicate touch. If the tropes of the crime genre are like a diagnostic manual where each year a new edition is issued with the updated rules, each were read. There’s an enjoyable self-awareness to both the script and the direction, borrowing a trope here or subverting another there. For example, the rough and tumble police detective, a figure who breaks all the rules but brings in just enough crooks not to get the boot, is capitalized on. He’s shown as ineffective, reckless, and soon chastised by his superiors for this behavior. There’s no hero-worship. He’s also frequently depicted as all too human, and the idealized vision of what he feels he should be isn’t always matched by the reality. The disconnect with how we want to see the world and ourselves and how the world actually is is a staple theme in fiction dating back to the invention of the storytelling, but what’s different here is how each point of view is portrayed. Why each man wants to catch and torture the killer, and why they think they do, is one of the developing arcs of the picture. There are multiple points of view on the case and the killer, and they seldom align. Each perspective on the truth behind the case, which one can see as meaning the post-modern quest for truth itself, betrays its owner, leaving each of them bitterly isolated in the darkness of a bloodied basement.
I’ve left out a surprising and key part of the film until now, and that’s how funny it is. Big Bad Wolves is part torture-horror, part procedural crime thriller, and part black comedy. The captive sits restrained, already a little bloody, and is approached by a hulking figure wielding a hammer. The music swells as the score ramps up into full effect. The face of the torturer rife with malicious intent, he grabs the captive’s hand and raises the hammer AND- his phone rings. It’s his mom! Seemingly borrowing from the wheelhouse of the Coens or Tarantino, grotesque violence sits side by side with shimmering humor. For a film routinely covered in carefully chosen shadows and gritty close-ups, to have such prominent comedy was a risky move, but it works. And, like everything else, the comedy serves a purpose beyond superficial entertainment. The horror of violence is framed in a unique way that, at carefully chosen points, is made either more intimate or kept further away depending on the comedy. The breaking of bones feels all the more visceral when you laughed a moment before, and it’s a compelling device more should use. I have to mention that the above gag—an external force interrupting the ongoing torture of the captive— is repeated multiple times, as though nature itself couldn’t rest easy while these men did their work.
I wish I could say more, but one of the joys of the film is in its discovery. There are the characters, the performances, the unconventional plotting that genuinely took me by surprise, and, man, that finish. There are always multiple moving parts to follow, and they frequently dare to collide. It was at one such moment that my stomach leapt into my throat and caused me to instantly sit on the edge of my seat. Ultimately, this is a film about men justifying what they do as long as it pertains a code, a flexible set of rules that change as it suits them. It can be said in the way the two writers and directors use the crime genre. The end product is a startlingly cohesive piece of work that makes your stomach churn as much as your brain think. It never becomes the stunner the filmmakers hoped or, but for reflective viewers with a penchant for the crime genre, this is an early-year treat. It’s the best film of 2014 so far, and it’s likely to remain such for some time.