A murder mystery has the oxymoronic task of delivering surprises that are in line with our expectations, and Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor manages this feat by blending its mystery with a communal character study, allowing the genres to uncomfortably cohabitate. We’re never sure when the story’s killer is going to strike, as the filmmaker devotes a refreshing amount of time to regarding the everyday routines of her characters, in work and repose. When the killer does attack, then, it feels like an authentic violation, as we’ve been apprised of the particular status quo that’s in disarray.
Spoor is set in Poland’s Kłodzko Valley, in a beautiful yet austere wooded community that’s rich in wildlife. Among the film’s most poignant pleasures is the loving photography of the wolves, boars, and deer that roam the land. The animals are more than beautiful, as they’re filmed with a hushed and protective sense of rapture. Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka), an eccentric retiree who teaches English to children part-time, is obsessed by the local animals and a culture that fetishizes their killing. While this community has hunting schedules, dictating when it’s legal to kill certain animals, poaching is prevalent, its evil wastefulness and egotism embodied by Wnetrzak (Borys Szyc), a criminal who runs gambling and prostitutes out of his fox farm.
Holland is sympathetic to Duszejko’s outrage with the hunting, which she reports to police who regard her with a mixture of disinterest, pity, and contempt. Early in Spoor, we see where Wnetrzak keeps his foxes, a cavernous hall of cramped and shrilly metallic cages that’s lit so as to suggest a set from Hostel. Wnetrzak pounds on the cages, presumably fearing that his foxes aren’t in enough misery. Later in the film, we see one of Wnetrzak’s employees dumping a skinned fox in a pile of snow and bodies outside, as if it’s simply more rubbish to be gotten out of the way. Most heartbreakingly, Duszejko comes upon a boar in the woods who’s been recently shot by a hunter. Weeping, the woman lays by the animal to escort it through its death. Such images, which are accompanied by the constant and ghostly wailing of abused animals, have a way of coaxing one’s sympathy for activism.
Certain images—of bodies killed callously en mass and left to rot—echo the Holocaust, which is of visceral relevance to Poland and recalled by characters in the film with shocking arbitrariness. Getting stoned by a fire with Duszejko, her neighbor and aspiring lover, Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski), mentions the rippling atrocities the Holocaust unleashed in his family. Duszejko’s new lover, Boros (Miroslav Krobot), is an entomologist who discusses the cutting down of the trees, which leads to a mass killing of beetles that he likens to an unacknowledged holocaust. As Krobot delivers this captivatingly earnest speech, the filmmakers frame Krobot’s wonderful face in close-up, emphasizing the actor’s resemblance to Robert Shaw and Eli Wallach.
Wnetrzak and his clients and enablers—who fondle young women dressed as bunnies after a hunt, gorging themselves on sex and violence—are being killed off. And Duszejko is so obviously a chief suspect as to be hidden in plain sight. Surely it couldn’t be this woman in the funny multicolored coat who calls her missing dogs her “daughters” and devotes herself to astrology, making a serious run for the title of town kook? In the end, the solution to the mystery is less notable than the fashion with which we’re casually discouraged from ruing the killing of these men, who’re destructors of Earth. The micro of this Polish valley’s greed stands for the macro of all cruelty, including the Holocaust as well as the corporations that are destroying our planet’s ecosystems for profit, altering climates, exterminating species, exploiting the poor, and rendering life less habitable for people who can’t afford to live in the places that have yet to be affected by such “progress.”
Spoor’s driven by a striking tonal contrast. On one hand, it’s an atmospheric and surreally comic character study that follows Duszejko as she learns to come out of her isolation and depend on humans as well as animals, fashioning a new social life in vignettes that emphasize gentility and connectivity, most memorably in a series of montages that suggest Duszejko’s visions of new acquaintances’ pasts. On the other, it’s a veiled call for revolution, excusing murder as a necessary step toward taking back our planet. The final scene, reveling in the birth of a new community that’s built on a bedrock of murder, is chilling for its persuasive sweetness. This tree-hugging, animal-loving film has a stinger in its tail.