(Trigger Warning: Child Abuse and Sexual Assault)
What is a monster? We live in a world where we know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that there are no vampires, no werewolves, no scarred demons with razor gloves stalking our dreamscapes with the power to make our nightmare deaths carry over into the waking world. Films featuring antagonists that no rational person could legitimately fear, like a children’s doll haunted by the soul of a serial killer or an evil leprechaun covered in carcinomas, belong to the realm of fantasy. Thus, contemporary horror often confines itself to the plausible, in many ways becoming more like thrillers than the traditional horror films of yore. Our modern monster has to be a person, someone who could be your neighbor or simply a fellow citizen who happens to be a stranger, capable of doing something monstrous. For the past couple of decades, this phantom has to be someone capable of committing that most heinous of crimes–child molestation and murder.
The problem with this, of course, is that those of us in the West have become horribly desensitized to it. For seventeen seasons (and counting), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has shown episode after episode dealing with the neat, patly handled aftermath of sexual assault, especially of children. Every other crime or investigative drama of the new millennium has also featured rape of children as a plot point multiple times. Chris Hanson turned pedophile hunting into a frenzied spectator sport with To Catch a Predator–not that this isn’t something that law enforcement should be doing, but turning the deception and capture of child molesters into entertainment? What the actual fuck? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the commodification and de facto pursuant trivialization of sexual assault and abuse, virtually always of women and often of children, has led to the horrifying explosion of misogynists, rape culture opportunists and deniers, and people who are generally unmoved by the suffering of others. Cultural sensitivities have been numbed by decades of exploitation of those most in need of understanding and protection.
As a result, a thriller that creates great tension and remains (mostly) non-exploitative while dealing with a child murderer in an appropriate way is a rarity, and 2013 Israeli film Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara (literally “Who fears the bad wolf,” released in English-speaking markets as Big Bad Wolves in 2014) is a surprisingly good watch, barring two major problems. It’s a thematically sound, lean and taut ride from start to finish.
The plot follows three men. The first two we meet at Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dror (Rotem Keinan); Dror is a Tanakh teacher who has been apprehended by a quartet of punch-happy police, led by Micki, in connection with the abduction of a girl who went missing during a game of hide-and-seek. They take him to a seemingly empty warehouse and rough him up before taking him in for processing; unbeknownst to them, they are filmed by a teenager who happens to have been hanging out in the abandoned building. Commissioner Tsvika (Dvir Benedek) pulls Micki from the case, initially demoting him for his actions before firing him once the video goes viral. Meanwhile, Dror finds himself already having been judged guilty in the court of public opinion after he is released and is ostracized. An anonymous tip leads the police to the missing girl’s corpse, which is missing its head (meaning she cannot be truly put to rest under traditional Judaic law, although this is not explicitly mentioned in the film) and bears signs of sexual assault; she is not the first. The girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), concocts a plan to torture Dror in order to find out where his daughter’s head is.
At the film’s core, the thematic intention is to call into question our convictions about good and evil. Is Dror guilty? What if he’s innocent? And, if he is guilty, does that justify that’s done to him, so graphically and brutally? Even if all that happens is a revisitation of the murderer’s crimes, will recreating those horrors really bring Gidi or Micki closure? Is everyone really a monster? This is beautifully delineated in the way that Dror and Micki act as reflections of each other. Once the video is released showing Micki and his fellow officers beating Dror, both lose their jobs; Dror is fired from the school due to parental complaints, and Micki is let go from the force for participating in the assault (with the unstated, implicit reason being that his firing is less for the event itself than for the fact that he was stupid enough to get caught doing it). Both the head of the school and the chief of police say that the dismissal is temporary, and that each man will come back to his respective position once everything blows over. Both men are estranged from their wives, causing them to feel distant from their daughters (Gidi is also estranged from his wife, and, of course, his daughter is dead).
Despite being an engrossing and cinematically pristine film, there are several factors that simply cannot be ignored with regards to the film. First and foremost, it’s reprehensibly irresponsible to portray the documenting of police brutality as being a greater social ill than the brutality itself. Many of the events of the narrative could have been prevented had the video not come to light, but the film doesn’t lay the blame at the feet of the policemen who are beating a suspect, instead having the characters lament that they were caught. No spoilers–I’ll simply say that this movie would have had an unambiguously happy ending had Micki and crew followed procedure in the first place.
But there’s an even greater problem here. There’s only one woman in this movie: the realtor (Nati Kluger). There are also a few young girls, obviously, but none of them ever speak or have any autonomy at all. Arguably, there’s a certain unavoidable lack of complete agency for all children, given that they require caretaking, but contrast this to the way we are presented with the chief’s son, who is actualizing his hero worship of his father and being empowered by his father’s knowledge and guidance. He’s treated like a person, which is more than can be said for any of the adult women who are heard (and never seen) in this movie. Every single man who makes up the core of this ensemble has a wife, a woman who exists entirely offscreen, appearing only as a disembodied voice on the phone. This is a fantastic movie, taught and evocative and timely, but there’s just something about the fact that this is a revenge movie in which three men exact harsh torture upon a fourth, with all of them being motivated by the rape and murder of a voiceless girl with a formless mother.
The last time I saw a plot that handled all the elements on display here with the same kind of tension, ambiguity, and deftness was 2005’s Hard Candy, starring Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Page’s character is an underage girl who is lured in by Wilson’s alleged pedophile, only to reveal herself as a possibly unhinged self-made vigilante; the rest of the film plays out as a series of power games that calls into question audience assumptions about who is the predator and who is the prey. Both movies have a cast in the single digits (not counting phone voices) and exist solely to play with expectations, but Hard Candy had something that Wolves does not: female characters.
Wolves may be a five star viewing experience, but its subtextual erasure of the horrifying implications and realities of its own premise severely detracts from the film’s recommendability as well as its relevance and canonization as a work of art. “If you want to see this premise done right, watch Hard Candy” is the wrong lesson to take from this review, although that statement is mostly accurate. Wolves is a legitimately good movie, it’s simply that its lack of self-awareness of the way in which it articulates its thesis weakens the movie’s overall statements and concepts.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond