How much levity belongs in art? Especially in art that deals with serious subject matter? Think about 2012’s Django Unchained. It was one of the few films to address slavery in quite some time. Of course, its approach is very much a Tarantino one; while the movie is a drama, it is chock-full of stylistic and humorous touches that lighten the otherwise devastating subject matter. Contrast this with last year’s 12 Years a Slave, which pulls no punches in its stark, honest portrayal of the horrors of the institution. Does one film mean “more” than the other because of its tone? Is Django Unchained less important because it is less serious? These questions are hard to answer, and they persist – most recently in Big Bad Wolves, a 2013 Israeli thriller.
The movie, from writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, follows three fathers as their lives intersect after one of their daughters is brutlly raped and murdered. Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) is the detctive charged with catching the perpetrator, but his main suspect, Dror (Rotem Keinan), is also being pursued by Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the victim’s father. The men’s lives collide as the investigation takes on a life of its own. Each of the three leads (and even Doval’e Glickman as Gidi’s father) turn in exciting and engaging performances. Keinan has the hardest job – playing his part in a way that doesn’t tip the viewer off as to whether he is guilty or innocent.
The filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeves. The movie reeks of Tarantino and Martin McDonagh. “Reek,” however, is a strong word. The movie comes off smelling quite nicely. It doesn’t have the same pleasing rhythm as a Django or an In Bruges, but I’m willing to give the film a translation-based benefit of the doubt. Certainly the intention is there, and the funny moments play as funny.
Unfortunately, at times the humor and irreverence hurt the big picture. Gidi has just lost a child, but his demeanor and his dialogue would not necessarily tip you off to this. Therefore some of the emotion just isn’t really present on the screen.
Films from last year such as The Hunt and Prisoners show us how palpable these emotions can be (perhaps to a detrimental extent in the case of the latter). The Hunt examines the reality of being accused of terrible crimes, while Prisoners shows us how a parent reacts to such things. Without this honesty it is hard to fully buy into the idea that Gidi has lost his child, and has thus been driven to such extreme measures.
Does this make Big Bad Wolves a less worthy film? Not automatically. Big Bad Wolves‘ faults are indicative of its own problems, rather than those of its style as a whole. In Bruges has some very real emotions that only end up heightening the comedy surrounding them. Likewise (to a lesser degree) with Django.
So are these smiling dramas less meaningful than their self-serious counterparts? They’re certainly easier to watch, but I don’t think that should been seen as a bad thing by the larger film community. Entertainment should be entertaining. For every Django there should be a 12 Years. And I’ll watch them both. I guess there’s no answer to the question of which matters more. At the very least they are both worthwhile.