There's black comedy, and then, in the darkest corner of an airtight box buried deep underground, there's the humor of Big Bad Wolves, a new Israeli thriller from writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.
Consider two scenes juxtaposed early in the film: In the first, Tel Aviv policeman Miki (Lior Ashkenazi)has just finished engaging in a somewhat too spirited interrogation of Dror (Rotem Keinan), a suspect in the abduction of a little girl. Miki's getting the standard cop-movie dressing-down in his captain's office — only the captain's son is also there for "bring your child to work" day, and the stern-faced kid enthusiastically joins dad in berating Miki for his shoddy police work.
It's a clever, even hilarious subversion of a familiar scene, but it's cut short by a phone call that sends Miki and his partner to the woods, where, in the next scene, at the end of a trail of gummi worms, they find the decapitated and sexually violated body of the missing girl. You'll choke on your barely faded laughter.
The juxtaposition of humor and brutality is difficult to pull off under the best of circumstances; Quentin Tarantino corners that market, and tellingly, this film's marketing campaign is centered squarely on his declaration that it was his favorite film of 2013. But it's a tall order to try to to stage laughs around a series of crimes against children so heinous that just the reading of the police report will make the steeliest of viewers squirm.
So it's to the credit of Keshales and Papushado that they largely manage to pull it off without the laughs seeming too crassly exploitative. Funny things happen adjacent to horrific ones, but they never attempt to combine the two; the serious aspects of the story retain a grave sobriety.
There may be nothing funny about the torture that dominates the film's second half, but when one torturer manages to accidentally render himself unconscious — circuitously, due to the nagging influence of his overbearing wife — it's hard not to laugh. The laughter still feels bitter, though, given that he's a monster who's just finished searing someone else's flesh with a blowtorch, joking about how the smell made him miss backyard barbecues.
Those scenes of torture are important to the bigger picture Keshales and Papushado are trying to look at through the basic crime thriller mechanics of the movie: like Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve's 2013 thriller, Big Bad Wolves uses child abduction as tinder to spark both characters' and viewers' emotions, before asking us to examine the extremities of the reactions.
Torture is one the two have in common, for just as in Villeneuve's film, the father of the abductee, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), takes the prime suspect — in this case, Dror, a meek religious-studies teacher — hostage. Miki is along for the ride as well, but in a twist, the gung-ho cop who dealt Dror his first beating, and who was once so sure of the suspect's guilt, begins to have doubts as the tactics yield no results.
The filmmakers also attempt to add to that some commentary on Israeli-Arab relations in the region. But Miki and Gidi's interactions with a man on horseback from the neighboring Arab encampments are far too on the nose with their well-intentioned anti-prejudice sermonizing.
So it eventually goes for the rest of the film's moral explorations as well. Keshales and Papushado seem concerned that their points about the pointlessness of torture — whether the suspect is guilty or not — will go missed, and so every one of them is underlined and boldfaced until they're sure we're getting the picture.
That doesn't prevent Big Bad Wolves from being a wildly entertaining and uncomfortably funny thriller, but it does stop it from being the something more that the filmmakers sought. The laughs may be designed to help the movie's message go down easier, but when the message misses the mark, even the proverbial spoonful of sugar can taste bitter.