This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
Back in 2009, “Let the Right One In,” a slick, deeply felt genre piece from a far away land, played the Tribeca Film Festival and blew almost everyone (this writer included) away. It’s hard not to think about “Let the Right One In” while watching “Big Bad Wolves,” a similarly slick foreign language thriller that played at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s questionable whether or not “Big Bad Wolves” will receive the kind of attention “Let the Right One In” did (its subject matter is significantly stickier than two young vampires falling in love), but it’s every bit the triumph that film was—it’s bold, beautifully told, and surprisingly funny.
The movie starts with a wordless, dreamy prologue that nods to the fairy tale nature of the film’s title—a trio of young children are playing hide and seek around what could comfortably be labeled a haunted cabin in the woods. As the children finish their game, they realize that one of them is missing (a lone shoe remains). The sequence is shot in a kind of fuzzy slow motion that lends their actions a kind of suspended-in-water sensation, which gives off the feeling that this is going to be the last truly wonderful moment any of these children have. (The sequence is punctuated with one of the greatest title cards in some time, the letters of the movie's title spread limply atop the cabin, covered in moss and leaves, like it was part of a sign for some sad old motel.)
So with the investigation now in the hands of his incompetent contemporaries, Miki starts keeping tabs on Dror, following him wherever he goes. At the same time that we’re watching Miki stalk Dror, we also start following another character who is doing almost the exact same thing—Gidi (Tzahi Grad), an older gentleman with a cleanly bald head and big, seventies-era reading glasses. For a while you’re not sure who he is, exactly, since they never make it explicitly clear that Dror really is the killer. But as Miki’s investigation intensifies, he brings Dror out to a secluded patch of the woods and starts demanding answers while pointing a loaded gun at Dror’s head. That’s when Gidi intervenes; knocking both men unconscious and dragging them to a new home he’s just purchased specifically for the purposes of his dark deeds.
If this sounds like an uneasy mixture of tones and styles, it is. But, amazingly, Papushado and Keshales direct this thing beautifully, weaving dark humor and philosophical and political unrest through a piece that, in the wrong hands, could have been totally boilerplate. There are details and moments in the film that don't just linger; they downright haunt. Some thrillers are described as being "edge of your seat" affairs, but with "Big Bad Wolves," it's more like you are hovering just beyond the chair, midair, waiting for the story to resolve itself. Everything in the film contains a wicked sense of humor, so that even the final shot of the movie, which at first seems almost unbearably bleak, also doubles as a sick joke. You can huff and puff all you want, but you can't blow "Big Bad Wolves" down. [A]