Berlinale review: Spoor (Agnieszka Holland)

Animal rights activism takes on a whole new meaning in Spoor, writer/director Agnieszka Holland’s return to her home country Poland. An ecological, supernatural thriller, the film shows Holland has picked up some American traits from working on shows like The Wire and The Killing, but it is debatable if it’s for the better. What starts out as a mystery about an old lady who is on a crusade against the hunters and poachers in the Polish countryside, slowly evolves into a contrived, and by the end absurd mess of a story. Even the animal lovers among cinephiles should steer (no pun intended) clear of this misguided misfire, which may have its heart in the right place, but its head has gone to the dogs.

Speaking of dogs, one day Duszejko’s (Agnieszka Mandat) dogs go missing. The old spinster sets up a search party with the children she teaches in the daytime, to no avail. Not long after, one of her neighbors, a vicious poacher, dies under mysterious circumstances. When he is found by Duszejko and another, equally elderly neighbor (Wiktor Zborowski), she notes the deer nearby. When some time after she also finds the local police chief with a beat-in skull, and there are deer tracks around him as well, her suspicion turns to the animals taking revenge. This suspicion is mainly based in her astrology readings, and with each subsequent victim, her theories start to sound, at least to Duszejko, more plausible. But it’s a virtual one-woman struggle against a powerful group of shady local hunters, which also includes the local priest, preaching from the pulpit to kill animals left and right. The only ones on her side are her trusty neighbor, a young woman under the influence of one of the hunters (fulfilling the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ trope), and an out-of-town IT wiz who has somehow found himself working for the town police department (he would represent the ‘nerd who saves the day’ trope).

Handsomely shot, and anchored by an enthusiastic performance by Mandat, Spoor loses itself in an increasingly ludicrous plot, with events and character actions that seem to be taken straight out of some terrible American cop shows, which would exclude the ones mentioned above, so how this awful plotting got into her writing is a mystery. The film itself is not a mystery at all, as the eventual resolution is seen coming over miles of snow-covered Polish meadows (which, admittedly, do look beautiful; the cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski is the real winner here). And just to be sure, Holland shows us the murders to make us understand what happened. And then shows the young girl and the IT nerd (who, of course, have fallen in love) also figuring it out, just to beat the audience over the head one more time, with feeling. The screenplay is littered with exposition like deer droppings in a Polish forest, and is not even worthy of the term ‘airport crime novel’.

The ecological streak cannot help this animal-friendly atrocity, whatever surface-level thematics it may carry, because it is obscured by ‘enchanted forest’ fairytale elements. The film has definite pacing issues, the first obvious murder not showing up until almost an hour into the film, as superfluous storylines put it on sidetracks that lead nowhere, their only goal seemingly being to underline the charicatural nature of the evil antagonists. Spoor lacks any sort of nuance and proper characterization in general, even for its protagonist (funnily enough, her neighbor is given the most backstory). Perhaps Holland’s baffling remark in the press kit, that all of it may have been just in the mind of Duszejko, is the most satisfying explanation after all, but the suggested allergy to light is too unconvincingly introduced. Perhaps Holland stayed in the sun too long herself…