Thursday, September 28, 2017

NYFF ’17: Spoor

It turns out Count Zaroff was right. Man is the most dangerous game. Something is poaching the poachers, because it is never hunting season for well-armed male chauvinists in this ridiculously backward Polish village. We had a good run at the top of the food chain, but the natural world just might be fighting back in Agnieszka Holland & Kasia Adamik’s disappointing Spoor (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

A retired engineer and part-time school teacher like Janina Duszejko ought to be a forceful advocate for animal rights, but whenever she tries to file a complaint against poachers, she ends up sputtering incomprehensible moral outrage. It makes it easy for the venal police chief to disregard her, but still earns her plenty of enemies. Waking one morning to find her beloved dogs missing, Duszejko suspects the worst and her fears are justified. However, a noxious poacher turns up dead shortly thereafter. The circumstances are suspicious, but baffling, since the only tracks leading up to the body are of the four-legged variety (you know, animal spoor).

Is something supernaturally natural afoot, as in Fessenden’s The Last Winter and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, or is there a more Scooby-Doo explanation, involving Old Man Smitters and a wolf costume? Somehow, Holland and co-screenwriter Olga Tokarczuk (adapting her own novel) come up with an answer that will leave all sides deeply unsatisfied, which is sort of perversely admirable.

We are supposed to be charmed and impressed by Duszejko’s pluckiness, but it is frankly annoying how she is always feeling things so deeply. She even recruits an amiably geeky hacker to her cause, but her strategy still largely consists of ineffectual tantrums. Her motives for investigating the murders never really compute either, especially if they are the result of Mother Nature rising up.

Nevertheless, Holland’s skill as a filmmaker remains crystal clear throughout Spoor. Holland, co-director Adamik, and cinematographers Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski give it an evocatively icy noir look. Just watching it will make you feel chilly. Holland also manages to maintain a palpable sense of tension, despite giving us so little in terms of real deal genre business. Viewers just keep watching, because they will feel like something significant is always about to happen.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka is fine as Duszejko, but like her character, she probably would have reaped better results by working smarter rather than working harder. Clearly, subtlety was not a priority for anyone involved. Nicely atmospheric but filled with light-weight polemics, Spoor should not be a priority when it screens this Saturday (9/30) and Sunday (10/1), as part of the 2017 NYFF.