The bleak and brutal Israeli-made child killer thriller "Big Bad Wolves" delivers well-crafted torture porn with a faint conscience.
The majority of action in "Big Bad Wolves" takes place in a basement, rendered in sharply composed, unclaustrophobic widescreen images by cinematographer Giora Bejach. (With minimal effort, this movie could easily be translated into a single-set, live stage thriller, with a big budget for blood squibs.)
Directed and written by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado -- credited with the 2011 horror film "Rabies" -- the movie provides an intriguing bookend to last year's superior Hollywood missing-child mystery "Prisoners" with its similarities in plot and in its deployment of surprises that go off like improvised narrative explosive devices.
When the decapitated body of a missing girl is found tied to a chair, her toenails and fingernails ripped out, police officer Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) hauls in a chief suspect, a timid schoolteacher named Dror (Rotem Keinan) and tries to beat a confession out of him.
A young witness secretly records the interrogation, which goes viral on the Internet. But the ensuing political embarrassment caused by the release becomes a Hitchcockian maguffin. The real story doesn't kick in until both Dror and Micki are kidnapped by the murdered girl's father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), and taken to the basement of an isolated house surrounded by Arab settlers.
There, Gidi enlists the reluctant Micki as his assistant in doing to Dror what the killer did to his daughter, starting with the nails and finger bones. Gidi only wants to know one thing: Where is his daughter's head?
The director/writer duo has a knack for taking our tolerances for torture to the edges of bearability.
At the same time, this movie continually baits us with small, weird twists reminding us that no matter how sadistic Gidi becomes, he's still very much a human being. (A phone call from his guilt-bomb-dropping Jewish mother practically reduces Gidi to a burbling mess.)
Then Gidi's concerned dad Yorum (Dov Glickman) shows up at the house on his wife's orders. The kindly old man wanders into the basement, of course, precipitating a confrontation resolved by a seismic slap to our humane expectations.
Both "Big Bad Wolves" and "Prisoners" turn nuanced ambiguity into an art form as they explore the ethical and moral decisions made by men who imagine that being victimized gives them license to do whatever they deem necessary.
Hugh Jackman's dad "knows" the suspect can tell him the location of his missing daughter, just as Grad's dad "knows" the schoolteacher can tell him the location of his daughter's missing head.
You could argue that "Prisoners" validates the view that outcomes justify the methods when crimes against children are committed.
Not so with "Big Bad Wolves," a thriller with horror overtones and a final shot that suggests actions fueled by desperation and vengeance aren't merely heartless. They're brainlessly self-destructive as well.
"Big Bad Wolves" opens at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. In Hebrew with subtitles. Not rated, but contains graphic violence and sexual references. 110 minutes. ½