Polish Thriller ‘Spoor’ Is A Pulpy Murder Story — And A Utopian Fable

by John Powers

During the Cold War, the movies we saw from the Eastern bloc were steeped in politics. They critiqued, more or less obliquely, life under communism. More than 30 years later, the Berlin Wall is long gone, but the films from Eastern Europe haven’t lost their political edge. These days, they’re critical of post-communist societies that remain harsh and oppressive.

This criticism takes audaciously radical form in Spoor, a fiercely offbeat Polish thriller whose heroine is unlike any woman you typically see onscreen. Based on the terrific novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the 2018 Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk, it was directed by the celebrated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland along with her daughter, Kasia Adamik. The result is a film that’s strange, darkly funny and powerful. Imagine a pulpy murder story that’s also a utopian fable about feminism, social justice and ecology.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka stars as Janina Duszejko, a retired engineer who lives in the mountainous countryside of southwest Poland along with her two dogs. Devoted to astrology and the poetry of William Blake, Janina is an instinctive defender of the weak who is especially tormented by the suffering of animals.

Janina despises the culture that leads men to abuse women and to gleefully shoot deer, wild boar, pheasants and rabbits. When she complains about poachers killing game out of season, the police treat her like a crazy old bat. When she complains about it to the village priest, he tells her it’s blasphemy to care so much about animals.

Soon mysterious things start happening. Janina’s dogs disappear. Then she and a loner named Matoga discover the murdered body of the loathsome neighbor she calls Big Foot. As the police investigation proceeds, Janina spends her time with a small community of outsiders — including a police cyber-guy who has seizures, an innocent young woman forced to work at a brothel, and a visiting Czech entomologist who’s studying one of the local beetles. Meanwhile, more corpses start appearing, but there are no human footsteps surrounding the dead bodies, only animal footprints. Could these wild creatures possibly have done it?

If all of this sounds a tad delirious, it is — deliberately so. Rather like Taxi Driver, which showed us an infernal New York City that reflected Travis Bickle’s psyche, Spoor gives us rural Poland as it feels to Janina. Working with more stylistic panache than ever before, Holland does a superb job of heightening everything — the majesty of the mist-swaddled countryside, the thrillingly magical visitation of wild animals, the spiritual corruption of those in power.

And in Mandat-Grabka’s riveting performance, Janina dives deep into her own volcanic nature. Fueled by visions and moral rage, she lives with fearless intensity, whether teaching English to schoolchildren, yelling at the cops, flirting with the entomologist, or sobbing over a wild boar that’s been shot and simply left to die. In an earlier time, her weirdness might’ve gotten her thought of as a witch.

Janina’s rebelliousness is clearly understood by Tokarczuk and Holland, who both know what it is to refuse to go along with those in power. Now 72, Holland left Poland 40 years ago after her films were harshly censored by the Communist Party, beginning a remarkable career in the West that includes everything from Holocaust films to Henry James adaptations to episodes of The Wire. Despite her Nobel, Tokarczuk is hugely controversial in her home country for speaking out against the current Polish government run by the nativist, overtly authoritarian Law and Justice Party.

Although Spoor has one foot in classic noir, it steers clear of that genre’s attraction to defeat and destruction. Even as she plunges into the darkness, Janina won’t let herself be trapped there. Living her politics, she risks her life to fight what she thinks is a culture of death. Building to an ending worthy of a fairy tale, Spoor makes you feel just how monstrous human beings can be, yet it also suggests that fighting against cruelty can bring you back into the light.

In ‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things,’ A Couple Gets Stuck In A Dreamlike Limbo

by Glen Weldon

Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Jessie Buckley as Young Woman, Jesse Plemons as Jake in Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

After finishing writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, which hurls so many things at you as you watch it you find yourself bobbing and weaving just to keep up, I longed to talk it over with other people. It’s that kind of movie, wrapped in a thick shroud of fully intentional ambiguity that always threatens to thin to mere vagueness, and it benefits from the kind of unpacking that grows out of discussion. But as the film wasn’t out yet, I tentatively clicked on a few advance reviews.

There, to my surprise and no small amount of dismay, I found … just a whole metric ton of spoilers.

To be fair: This is the kind of movie it is almost impossible to write or talk about without revealing What’s Really Going On, unless one sticks to the barest bones of the plot.

So let’s do that. A young couple who’ve only recently gotten together (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemmons) take a long car trip during a snowstorm to have dinner with the guy’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their farmhouse. They have dinner. Things get awkward; weird stuff happens. The couple drives back to the city. The snow gets worse. Things grow more awkward. Weirder stuff happens.

That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t begin to convey what sets I’m Thinking of Ending Things apart, or what makes it so recognizably and indelibly a film only Kaufman can or would make. I will endeavor to do so here, without spoiling What’s Really Going On, by striving to keep things ambiguous, though we might have to settle for vague.

This is not, to be clear, a movie that harbors a Big Twist that must be protected at all costs. It’s not a puzzle that, once solved, surrenders everything that made it interesting in the first place. For one thing, you know that things are hinky from the jump — Buckley’s interior monologue seems strangely stilted, and keeps getting interrupted by Plemmons’ halting, unwieldy conversational gambits. These two people aren’t on the same wavelength, though one of them clearly wants them, aches for them, to be. So things between them, and around them, subtly shift, and keep shifting.

On the surface, the critique Kaufman seems to want the film to make — the one he keeps shoving into the mouths of this couple over and over again, particularly in the two long car drives that make up the film’s first and third acts — goes something like this: We humans subsist on false, manufactured, derivative narratives and inauthentic emotions to distract us from what is True and Original and Real.

But let’s be real, or, you know, Real: That whole notion, especially as it’s presented here, is a facile, boring one — the kind of pseudo-intellectual, solipsistic nugget of received, pre-digested “wisdom” you might remember getting spouted by the most tendentious, arrogant mansplainer in your college dorm, that one time at a party when he put down his acoustic guitar long enough to corner you over by the Funyons and demand you read Bukowski.

And that, it seems to me at least, is What’s Really Going On, here.

Kaufman’s true target isn’t anything so abstract and anodyne as “modern life,” or the way it encourages us to fall into intellectual laziness and disingenuously parrot thoughts, take up positions and form identities we’ve cribbed from things we’ve read or watched or heard. No, he’s directing his mocking derision at the people (let’s face it: the men, overwhelmingly) who lie to themselves about their own gifts, who too-eagerly embrace the need to be seen as the smartest, the cleverest, the most special, and who resolutely fail to connect with others because of it.

This being a Charlie Kaufman joint, we are reasonably safe in assuming that he’s calling out himself, and others like him.

Over the course of the film, we see memories of past slights — and a lifetime of outright humiliations — mix with a desperate longing to be, and to have always been, accepted, embraced, validated. To have one’s every pat, received notion about life, and visual art, and film, and the essays of David Foster Wallace (come on, that’s a tell) vigorously agreed with, and eagerly shared, by someone, anyone, else: Eternal Sunshine of the Incel Mind.

That’s a lot of conceptual work to lay upon the shoulders of your actors, especially when you keep buffeting them with continuous, mysterious shifts in mood, motivation, characterization, backstory and, not for nothing, wardrobe that would seem to deny them the bedrock emotional grounding that the craft of acting requires.

But Buckley is terrific, modulating her performance to accommodate whatever way Kaufman’s wind is blowing, from scene to scene. Plemmons is low-key terrifying in the way he eases from surly and resentful to pleading and pitiable to stoic and unreadable. Thewlis is by turns creepy and heartbreaking, and Collette’s is a performance you find yourself watching with open-mouthed incredulity and awe. Say this much: She adds yet another wildly uncomfortable family dinner scene to an IMDB profile already studded with them.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things may be downbeat — and hoo boy, is it — yet it avoids the dour misanthropy of much of Kaufman’s work. Only just, though. Your mileage may vary of course, but I found a moment, late in the film, when a character seems to forgive themselves for living an empty, emotionally stunted life quietly breathtaking, because knowing his stuff, I never expected Kaufman to permit himself or his characters (who are we kidding: himself) even the possibility of grace.

It’s not a sentiment I was prepared to extend to the character in question, nor do I think Kaufman expects the audience to. But it was nice to see Kaufman letting up on himself — or at least, the self he sees in the mirror — for even a second, given that he’s spent so much of his career flagellating himself for our amusement.