On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Over the next few weeks, the snatching and subsequent murders of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah choked the nation in grief, leading to an agonized public outcry that would be unheard of in the U.S. (where the routine gunfire massacring of American citizens often becomes old news within hours). Days after the teens’ bodies were found, a young Palestinian named Mohammed Abu Khdeir was discovered beaten and burned to death in a suspected revenge killing. Enraged rocket fire from Hamas into Israel thus began the 2014 Israel-Gaza War.
HBO’s grim 10-part crime drama miniseries Our Boys is not a retelling of Operation Brother’s Keeper, perhaps the more obvious Hollywood thriller inspiration, but the investigation behind the excruciating murder of 16-year-old Khdeir. Filmed in Israel as an HBO-Keshet co-production and created by The Affair‘s Hagai Levi, Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar (Footnote) and Palestinian writer-director Tawfik Abu Wael, the Hebrew- and Arabic-language Our Boys is a study in cognitive dissonance. Story-wise, it questions the hypocrisies of racism, tribalism, blood libel and religious extremism. Stylistically, it’s simultaneously beautifully crafted and painfully sluggish — essentially your finest tapestry of abject misery porn.
By the end of the premiere, I wondered how they were going to eke out ten 55-minute episodes of this story. By the end of the fifth episode, I wondered how there could possibly be five more of these. Told with pointillistic detail, the dreary Our Boys sometimes feels more like a documentary than a true-crime procedural due to the shaky cinematography, naturalistic dialogue and interspersed archival footage that grounds the narrative in 2014. The story is totally absent of melodrama and heightened emotion. This is not to say Our Boys is detached — if anything, the emoting is deeply felt and often difficult to bear — but it is so microscopically focused on the tense real-time linear progression of the investigation that no moment feels contrived.
Shlomi Elkabetz (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem) stars as Simon, a laconic Shin Bet security officer leading a task force to preempt revenge killings in the wake of the teens’ kidnapping. When Khdeir’s burned body is found in the Jerusalem Forest, his team uses Stasi-like audio and video surveillance to track suspects, and even Simon himself goes undercover with the alleged perpetrators to gain enough evidence to make arrests.
Over the course of the premiere, we’re spun across multiple paralleling storylines as the Israeli kidnapping case concludes: Simon’s relationship with a creepy Hilltop Youth Jewish terrorist-turned-informer; the struggles of an ultra-Orthodox teenager, Avishai (Adam Gabay), whose family is pressuring him to attend yeshiva; and the battle between young Khdeir (baby-faced Ram Masarweh) and his father, Hussein (Jony Arbid), who is threatening to cancel the boy’s trip to Istanbul due to a domestic squabble. As Jerusalem fulminates following the discovery of the Israeli boys’ corpses, your stomach roils in fear for poor Mohammed, an innocent boy just trying to make his way home through the mobbed city without speaking a word of Arabic to arouse anyone’s ire.
Our Boys‘ superb performances may be one key reason to push through this tough-to-watch series. Gabay imbues anxious Avishai with the wrenching self-abnegation of a compunctious monster, while Arbid tears anguished Hussein’s heart right out of his chest during the crushing investigation of his son’s disappearance. (If Simon is the brains and the brawn of this series, then Hussein is its soul.) Israeli police are at first dismissive of Hussein’s claims that his son was kidnapped, but once Mohammed’s body is found, they quickly try to pin his murder on a supposed family “honor killing.” It’s a nightmare many Americans of color may empathize with.
Which raises the question I couldn’t swat away from my brain while watching Our Boys: Who exactly is the audience for this lengthy and meticulous foreign-language miniseries about a series of crimes that ignited a far-away war? Adaptations of Israeli dramas have been popular across seas (Showtime’s Homeland, HBO’s Euphoria) and spy thrillers inspired by Israeli politics have been critical hits in the U.S. (The Honourable Woman).
But this isn’t an adaptation — this is a story steeped in the minutiae of Israeli culture and Israeli-Palestinian politics that go well beyond Jew versus Muslim. If the viewer does not have a passing knowledge of the innumerable conflicts between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews, the socioeconomic stratification of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, or the in-fighting between extremist factions within Haredi Judaism, then they might be more than a little lost watching this program.
Our Boys is rife with a distinct Israeli machismo that passes mere tonal brooding and brutality. While the show is an open critique of animalistic violence and performative masculinity, it also has almost no room for female characters beyond a few crying mothers and snippy background investigators. The one notable exception is steely Dvora (Noa Koler, The Wedding Plan), a therapist who works closely with Avishai to push through his OCD, and later, a vow of silence that impedes Khdeir’s murder case. Dvora is a welcome break from the sea of bearded men who make up the majority of the cast, her tough-as-nails charisma and incongruous woolen beret a beacon that pulls you out of the show’s bleak literalism. All hail the life-giving beret.
Cast: Shlomi Elkabetz, Adam Gabay, Jony Arbid, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Aloni, Doron ben David, Noa Koler, Ram Masarweh, Ruba Blal Asfor
Executive producers: Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar, Tawfik Abu-Wael, Avi Nir, Alon Shtruzman, Karni Ziv, Peter Traugott, Rachel Kaplan, Noah Stollman, Michael Lombardo
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)