AFI Fest 2017: Spoor, by David Bax
“Don’t treat animals like people. It’s a sin.” So instructs a local priest to Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka), a woman who is mourning the sudden disappearance of her two dogs, in Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik’s Spoor. For more than two hours, Spoor ignore the padre’s advice, crafting a bizarre take on the serial killer-mystery-thriller genre in which the humans who keep winding up dead are secondary to the ongoing slaughter of various forest creatures by the hunting community. It’s thoroughly unsubtle, which eventually works in its favor during the gonzo climax but mostly serves to blunt the potential thematic impact.
Duszejko (she prefers to go by her surname) is generally viewed as the town loon, and not just because of her belief in horoscopes. Even as the bodies of local officials and powerful criminals keep turning up bludgeoned to death in the woods, she’s more concerned with reporting to the police things like the “murder” of a wild boar killed after the hunting season has ended. With the help of a handful of eccentric/idealistic locals, she aims to uncover what she feels is truly important and save the lives of those she actually cares about; in other words, not people.
Spoor’s most clever motif is the continual re-contextualizing of genre tropes and imagery to include or be about animals. The antler-centric visual connection to True Detective is just the beginning. We also get a play on the flashlight-bearing line of search partiers in the woods at night, calling out the name of the one they seek (beautifully photographed by cinematographers Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski). In this case, however, they’re looking for a dog, not a kidnapped child or the usual victim. Later, there’s a hilarious shot that recalls every movie in which a detective enters a place in which they’re not welcome and heads turn to regard them with suspicion. Only here, the heads belong to horses.
That sense of humor is delicately and delightfully balanced with the stark, grim look of the picture. Spoor resembles pretty much every cold and crepuscular serial killer movie to have come down the pike since The Silence of the Lambs but it’s too self-aware to feel derivative. It’s also, frankly, too lovely. Shots like the repeated use of a camera mounted high on a truck leading Duszejko’s car down foggy country roads are enrapturing and subtly sinister. Unfortunately, the spell is occasionally broken by the use of smeary video stock footage of wild animals.
Shoehorning those shots in is indicative of Spoor’s fatal flaw. It too often trips over itself in its eagerness to underline its points. Most people are bad and uncaring, especially about animals (which Holland emphasizes with extreme close-ups on their lips when they’re disparaging creatures) but also about humans (would it really be so easy to callously fire a government employee for being epileptic in a developed country like Poland?). And when people are good, the movie goes out of its way to let you know it, at one point framing a smiling woman with her head literally haloed by an overheard light. Yes, the real crimes here are the killings of all kinds of living things. But the secondary crime is that a potentially fun, distinctive movie is marred by boring, ham-fisted lecturing.