One of the things that makes Big Bad Wolves successful is its carefully balanced tone. Informed by all aspects of the production, from the elegant cinematography by Giora Bejach, to the performances of its leads, to the joint direction of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, Big Bad Wolves manages to add shades of humor to any otherwise gruesome and tragic story. There's also something faintly over-the-top about the whole affair, sporting a larger, or at least more absurd, than life feel. Vital to all of this is the music of Israeli composer Frank Ilfman, who is thankfully not afraid to match the darkness and boldness of the directors' vision. Having also scored the directors' previous film, Rabies, Frank Ilfman seems to have solidified himself as the directors' go-to composer and, if Big Bad Wolves is any indication of things to come, they will be very well served by this partnership. Simply put, Frank Ilfman's Big Bad Wolves is one of the most surprising, impressive, and downright entrancing thriller scores of this past year.
The film opens with what is at once one of the most daunting and invigorating things that a composer can tackle: four minutes of silence. Against slow-motion images of children playing hide-and-seek near an abandoned house, Ilfman weaves a foreboding yet undeniably grand statement of the score's main theme. As the urgency of the music builds in "Hide and Seek: Opening Titles", the composer's deft command of the London Metropolitan Orchestra quickly becomes apparent. In an age where more tonal, electronic scores seem to dominate these kinds of films, it is quite refreshing to see a composer revel in old-school, orchestral power like this. The main theme, introduced through the film's title sequence, is the anchor to this score, acting as a perfect distillation of the darker, quirkier, and larger than life nature of the film. Featured in a more traditional, suite-like performance in "Big Bad Wolves: Main Theme", this really is a killer melody. There's an elegance to it, a dark kind of whimsy reminiscent of a fairy tale, and a slithery forward momentum that renders each and every one of its numerous performances an absolute treat. Indeed, Ilfman manages to weave his main theme throughout the score, from on the playful, off-kilter bassoon in the strangely delightful "The March" to the more subdued renditions of "Scream for Me", "Saved By the Bell", and "The Phone Call". The final cue, "The Missing Girl and Epilogue", concludes the score with a satisfying and varied recap of the main theme, punctuated by a beautifully doleful piano interlude.
Other devilish delights are to be found in Ilfman's well-constructed action material. "The Chase", featuring slapping percussion, is surprisingly playful, as is "Bike vs Car". Each of these cues seems to do double duty, adding to the visceral energy of the sequences and imbuing them with a perverse kind of zaniness. While far from action material, the march-like "The Chair of Horror", heard during the film's preparation montage, is also an energetic highlight. An oddity of the score, however, is "Man Rides a Horse", the cue's strumming guitar and clicking castanets not so subtly evoking Morricone's westerns.
While Ilfman does not shy away from playing the horror/thriller portions by the book, as he does in "Help Me", "Hammer and Bones", and "Now Talk", Big Bad Wolves is largely defined by its grand, mischievous main theme and morbid sense of humor. I've often heard that the key to effectively scoring comedy is to play it straight. Surprisingly, Ilfman frequently avoids this cardinal rule, the comedic points of the film accentuated with his similarly comedic underscore. What ultimately keeps this from being a serious misstep, though, is how well the composer manages to retain the fabric and feel of the overarching thriller score when switching into "comedy mode". We're never far enough away from the score's darker side to completely forget the presence of something sinister lurking ahead. If this fact has somehow escaped you, let me say that Frank Ilfman's Big Bad Wolves is a surprise hit that I highly recommend. Before hearing of this film and Tarantino's ravings about it, I had not yet encountered Ilfman's work. With this score alone, though, he's managed to rope me in. To quote a Tarantino flick (appropriate, no?), "You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention."
A Few Recommended Tracks: "Big Bad Wolves: Main Theme", "Hide and Seek: Opening Titles", "The March", "The Chair of Horror", "The Missing Girl and Epilogue"
Label: Moviescore Media / Kronos Records
Availability: 18 track edition