‘Spoor’ Review: A Genre-Bending Revenge Thriller From Agnieszka Holland — Berlinale 2017

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Eagle-eyed viewers better versed in the Polish language will have to scour the end credits of Agnieszka Holland’s “Spoor” to find out if any animals were actually harmed in the making of this feisty, genre-bending film. Though far from perfect, this one part revenge thriller, one part eco-reverie, tied together with sumptuous visual brio, is the “John Wick”/ “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” mash-up you never knew you always wanted.

A note about the filmmaker first: Holland has one of the more interesting careers in international cinema, directing period dramas in French, Czech and Polish for the Euro-art-house circuit, while at the same time working steadily as a hired gun on prestige American series. Having spent the past several years working with NBC, HBO and Netflix, Holland clearly relishes her return to the feature filmmaking, shooting “Spoor” as a succession of sweeping shots and striking vistas, the sort that only dazzle on the big screen. However, instead of returning to the historical heft of films like “Europa, Europa” and “In Darkness,” Holland continues dispatching the straight-ahead genre elements she marshaled on TV projects like “The Killing” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” resulting in work that nicely synthesizes her disparate recent output.

Agnieszka Mandat plays Duszejko – that’s just Duszejko, no first name, no title thank you very much – a retired engineer, amateur astrologist and beloved schoolteacher living in the rolling hills where Poland and the Czech Republic meet. The crunchy earth mama is also a radical egalitarian, seeing no difference whatsoever between animal and human life – and that’s a terrible position to hold in a rural village where hunting is second only to staunchly patriarchal Catholicism as the local religion. Indeed, she howls in anguish every time a forest creature is shot, which Holland will often show in gruesome, unflinching detail (see the above disclaimer). Unfortunately for Duszejko, that happens nearly every day of the year.

Shortly after Duszejko’s two dogs (as she calls them, her “daughters”) mysteriously disappear, presumably victims of a local hunter, several of those very hunters start turning up dead as well.  In tune with the stars and the seasons, Duszejko insists that the local wildlife is extracting vengeance on their persecutors. The presence of hoof prints around the corpses and the otherworldly atmosphere cinematographers Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski offer the surrounding woods (the whole affair feels very “Twin Peaks” on many different fronts) certainly strengthen that assertion. Of course, you can sort of tell where “Spoor” is going even without knowing that it is based on a book titled “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” but if the film charts a familiar course, it takes an agreeably off-beat route to get there.

Holland lets the mystery that is never really a mystery play out through the course of a full year, allowing the colors and textures of the season set the mood at any given time. She plays up the thriller aspects through the dark chill of fall and winter, unpacking the many ways Duszejko’s deeply felt beliefs isolate her –and her bruised idealist neighbor Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski) – from the nominally moral community at large, while investigating that larger community as well, teasing out the way religion, aggression and masculinity operate within that rigid social hierarchy.

But she allows the film to take an extended vacation from its own intensity once the snow melts. The summer months bring Boros (Miroslav Krobot), a visiting entomologist, and the film gently morphs into a sexagenarian love triangle as the two men vie for her attention. A late night, joints-around-the-campfire-sequence is both warm and sad, offering a humanist, poignant interlude rarely found in your run of the mill revenge thriller. Later, Holland will intercut between Duszejko and Boros’ lovemaking and the mating practices of various insects, a sequence this startling, funny and illustrative of protagonist’s the primary belief that all living beings are equal. And then summer gives way to fall, and the film bares its fangs anew.

“Spoor” remains witty throughout, breaking even the tensest moments with the lead’s acid-tongued appraisals of the local hunters and their “testosterone related autism.” Lead actress Mandat gives a totally committed performance, anchoring a film that sometimes works against its own interest with a number of side plots that go nowhere, and supporting characters that exist exclusively to offer redundant exposition. The film is often redundant, repeating a scene or an idea two or three times when once would largely suffice. But so what? It’s not perfect. How many subversive animal rights horror-thriller character studies do you know that are?

Grade: B+

“Spoor” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.