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by Jay Seaver

"When animals attack and retirees are okay with that."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: My first impression of "Spoor" was not quite that it was a "when animals attack" movie told from the point of view of the eccentric old woman that the young protagonists initially disbelieve, although that was certainly in my head once we had enough twenty-something characters for a love triangle. I've got no idea whether that was something the filmmakers had in their heads at any point, and suspect they didn't, especially if you figure that they really weren't making a horror movie, but instead a genre movie that was actually interested in older people - which is something they've done exceptionally well.

The principle one is Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) - not "Janina", not "Ms. Duszejko", just "Duszejko", if you please - a former civil engineer who likes the fresh air and open spaces of the small Polish town near the Czech border to which she's semi-retired (she teaches English part-time at the elementary school and the kids love her), but hates the hunting culture that surrounds her, which is part and parcel to a larger tolerance for cruelty and indifference to animals. When a neighbor dies, her first impulse is to describe him as a cruel poacher, and she's got little but disdain for Jarek Wnetrzak (Borys Szyc) and the fox "farm" he runs, though she's quite fond of his girlfriend Maria "Good News" Chica (Patrycja Volny), hoping she'll see the crush Dyzio (Jakub Gierszal), the local police department's IT specialist, has on her. Of course, when she and Dyzio find a dead body in the snow, he isn't much more ready to give credence to Duszejko's observation that there are deer tracks leading to the body than anybody else. But as more bodies of hunters pile up during the ensuing months, it starts to look like she may be onto something.

You'll find characters like Duszejko in a lot of horror movies, hanging around the margins, tragically sacrificed as their warnings aren't heeded, and seeing her at the center is an interesting perspective. Even considering that, it's almost shocking when, midway through, a character we've seen a couple times and maybe not given a great deal of esteem looks at her with actual interest, then she later clicks with the older entomologist who discovers one of the bodies... And it doesn't get particularly contentious because they're too old and have been through too much to waste time like that. It seems genuinely exciting to see a movie like this built around people who are at retirement age without making a joke or point of it; they're just the characters the filmmakers saw as interesting people, and not just because they're sensible and experienced: They're individuals informed by their age, but not entirely defined by that.

And, boy, is Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka given a heck of an interesting role that she just kills, because Duszejko is not just the older woman more sensible and empathetic than her younger/male counterparts. She's eccentric, often unreasonable, and over-emotional at a minimum. And yet, the actress is often able to take moments where the audience quickly finds themselves sympathizing with the folks who think she's a batty old loon and sort of find grandma in them, turning them around before their eyes. It becomes more and more of a stretch as the movie goes on, to the point where the audience is basically saying, okay, she's nuts, and has probably lost a measure of self-control, but she's harmless, she gives color to the town. That's a heck of a tough character to build your film around, but that it somehow works is amazing.

Mandat-Grabka gets the best scenes along those lines, but Wiktor Zborowski and Miroslav Krobot have good turns as the other folks in her age group who find themselves aligned with her. The younger group is quite enjoyable to watch as well; there's a matching desperation to Maria and Dyzio that Patrycja Volny and Jakub Gierszal express in complementary ways, him in a way that's often manic, like he's trying to get folks to notice more than his hidden epilepsy while she's sweet but terrified rocking the boat will ruin everything. It lets Borys Szyc make his balding, unimpressive-looking Jarek seem all the more evil for how casual he seems until a gusher of cruelty comes out.

It's also an impressively put-together film beyond the performances - unlike many movies which would try to keep its story compact, director Agnieszka Holland (with "collaborating director" Kasia Adamik) and co-writer Olga Tokarczuk (who also wrote the original novel) let this one unspool over the course of roughly a year and use each time frame well: The autumn mists at the start prime the viewer to try to look in corners to see mystery, while there's beauty and danger in the pristine white of winter and personal reawakening as spring becomes summer. The relaxed pace gives viewers plenty of time to put things together without necessarily needing things spelled out, and allows Holland and her collaborators to build on the off-kilter things established early to the point where they can get downright crazy toward the end and ask the audience to roll with it, even though much of the movie had been rather grounded.

It's not perfect on that count, and some will likely feel that the film reaches the point where it can't stretch far enough a bit early - it's long-ish and asks a lot - but it earns plenty of respect and is just plain entertaining without looking for credit for what it's doing different, making it a very nice discovery.

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originally posted: 08/03/17 02:52:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 AFI Fest For more in the 2017 AFI Fest series, click here.

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