AFI Fest Review: ‘Spoor’ Delivers A Decent Polish Mystery

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Spoor, a Polish murder mystery that played at 2017's AFI Fest. From the director of Europa, Europa.

If there is one thing I’ll take away from Spoor (or Pokot in Polish), it is the actual look of Poland. As much as I know about Poland from a historical standpoint, it seems so rare that I get to look at the country as it is today. Spoor makes good use of Poland’s countryside scenery, as it is a murder mystery that takes place over the course of many months. This allows the viewer to get a sense of the natural beauty a lead character vehemently argues for. The story mainly gets by on the style and energy coming through in the filmmaking and that same lead performance, but there is an attractive handle on the setting that I appreciated.

Selected as Poland’s entry for 2017’s Best Foreign Language Film, noted female filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa, The Secret Garden) seemed to put a lot of effort in creating this rather lively film. It tackles subject matter meant to challenge the viewer, given specific imagery we see, but also revels in its pulpy murder mystery plot. This may not be Seven, but there was a desire to use genre conventions as a way to delve into what it means to want to care for the animal kingdom, rather than hunt them.

Spoor is set in a remote mountainous region of southern Poland. An elderly woman, Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), lives by herself and expresses tremendous anger against the hunters that kill animals for sport. Soon, several hunters begin dying mysterious deaths. Duszejko has her theories of what is happening, but being the sort of astrology-loving hippy that she is, authorities set their sights elsewhere. As time goes by, we learn more about Duszejko by way of the different people she does manage to befriend. Of course, this isn’t stopping certain people from facing violent deaths.

On the outside, the story is kinda silly. There is some pitch-black humor on display here in how characters banter and the reactions to specific scenarios, but never in a way that betrays the mostly serious tone of the film. It is mostly thanks to Mandat’s performance that the film seems to move so efficiently. By putting her at the center, Spoor gets itself out of the way of having some rookie enter the town to slow things down, or a blander presence being none-the-wiser to what’s going on. Duszejko is a lived-in character who feels natural within the world of this film, and it benefits from it.

There’s also a great flow to the film. I’m aware Holland co-directed this movie with her daughter and however that worked, the results allowed for a movie with a pulse. The camera is always moving, and scenes feel like they benefit from this added sense of urgency. Time is taken to slow things down for the sake of Duszejko’s monologues or the building of some tension, but it was sort of wild to see a film, with an aging woman at the center, be so heavy on movement. There is a score that seems a little too influenced Hans Zimmer to help in creating a distinct feel, but one could see where the inspirations were coming from.

Sadly, the story doesn’t know how to wrap itself up effectively enough. That is due to the overall message the film wants to share. Given the climate of today, the care for creatures in the animal kingdom may not hit as hard as other topics, but there is an evident anger coming out of this film. I wish Spoor would have done better in channeling that anger into a finale that didn’t feel so trite. It’s not due to a lack of backbone to follow-through on an idea, but the film takes a more straightforward and easier way out than I would have liked, rather than telling an ultimately darker tale that would feel more fitting.

The film is based on the novel “Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead,” by Olga Tokarczuk (who co-wrote the screenplay with Holland) and whether or not the movie changes how things play out, there does seem to be a dip in quality when looking at where the story ends up. Building up to an ending, however, there is a solid character study taking place, which happens to be within the realm of a mystery. The showcase for the various Polish locations does not hurt either. Again, it is nice to see these sides of the country, be it the snowy winters or the lush, green springs.

Spoor mostly works thanks to its lead performance and the many interactions she has with the rest of the cast. There is also some impressive filmmaking on display to make a serious picture all the more watchable. I only wish there was a stronger commitment to the message. It is one thing to see people be punished for their actions and the film to have an opinion on it, but the story doesn’t wind up capturing that sort of intensity at its best when it comes time to close. Regardless, Spoor allowed me to see Poland’s take on some gritty pulp fiction, which was plenty sufficient.

7
Good
Written by
Aaron is a movie fanatic and loves talking about such things…a lot. He is from Orange County, California, but earned a degree or two at UC Santa Barbara. He describes himself as a film reviewer, writer, podcaster, video game player, comic book reader, disc golfer, and a lefty. His mind is full of film knowledge and random trivia, but he is always open to learning more, whether it’s through box office stats, reviewing Blu-rays from The Criterion Collection or simply hearing first hand from filmmakers and others about various productions and behind-the-scenes tidbits.

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