Friday, June 11, 2010

BIFF ’10: The Dark House

Under Martial Law, most Polish citizens were highly distrustful of the state police. After all, truth and justice were not high on the militia’s agenda during the early 1980’s. Such is definitely the case with their investigation of an apparent murder dating back to 1978. Though the exact circumstances of the crime are murky, the character of their inquiry is decidedly dubious in Wojtek Smarzowski’s naturalistic thriller The Dark House (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Brooklyn International Film Festival.

Edward Srodon is a mess. Having drunk away his livelihood after the untimely death of his wife, he accepts a position at a remote state agricultural enterprise. While traveling to his provincial posting, Srodon is waylaid by a torrential storm. Not so fortunately, he finds refuge in the farm house of old moonshiner Zdzislaw Dziabas and his much younger wife Bozena. There is something clearly off about his hosts, but Srodon lets his guard down as the alcohol starts to flow.

Obviously, things must go south eventually, because in the parallel story line, a Srodon looking very much the worse for wear is brought back to Dziabas’s house to re-enact the events of that fateful night for the militia. Despite the remote location of the crime scene, the events that transpired there did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, they seem to be somehow related to the mysterious death of Srodon’s predecessor, who confided in the local Catholic priest his suspicions of high level corruption at the state farm.

While Smarzowski’s temporal shifts are a bit confusing at first, the way the two story arcs start to mirror each other is quite clever. Far from telegraphing his punches, Smarzowski leaves many questions open to interpretation, capturing the sense of uncertainty and uneasiness that marked the years of Martial Law. That tension is heightened by an unsettling avant-garde jazz score composed by Mikołaj Trzaska.

Though House looks like it was produced with a shoestring budget, for the most part that grungy look well serves the film’s gritty action. Amid a strong, appropriately unglamorous cast, Arkadiusz Jakubik is a real standout as Srodon, portraying his character’s myriad of faults under radically different circumstances with complete conviction. Bartlomiej Topa also brings interesting nuance to the supporting role of Lt. Mroz, the one honest cop whose interest in the truth puts his career in jeopardy.

House is a nasty little crime thriller, in the best sense of the term. Offering a caustic commentary on Poland’s Communist experience and a subversive take on the thriller genre, it is a very intriguing film. Highly recommended, it screens again during BIFF tomorrow night (6/12) at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.