Pokot is an entry in a recent genre cycle of ‘eco-thrillers’ – and like the Icelandic film Woman at War (2018) it has a central female character. In this case the film is also directed by a woman, the now veteran Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland who has recently directed episodes of well-known American ‘long-form TV narratives’ such as House of Cards (2015-17) and earlier The Wire (2004-8). Actually the directorial role is shared by Agnieszka Holland and her daughter Kasia Adamik and the script is by Holland and Olga Tokarczuk, adapted by the latter from her own novel. Pokot is also, as the title implies, a form of North European genre based on the hunt and the machismo of its male followers. There is a further set of generic elements but I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll put them to one side for the moment.
The central character is Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), a woman in her sixties (IMDb calls her ‘elderly’ – harrumph!). She’s a mysterious character with a past who doesn’t like people using her personal name and is quick to correct pronunciation of her family name. I did wonder if this was an identity issue (i.e. a language/naming issue) as other characters stumble over it and repeatedly check it. Someone else at the screening suggested that this might be a hangover of the communist regime in Eastern Europe but I think it is significant that the narrative is located in a ‘contested’ region in South West Poland along the border with the Czech Republic. This is an area with National Parks on either side of the border. Designated a UNESCO ‘biosphere’ the area has plentiful wildlife, which moves across the borders. The local population is Polish but has also historically been part of German-Czech Bohemia.
The narrative covers the four seasons with a short coda. Each section of the narrative has a title card for the month of the year and a listing of all the wildlife that can legally be hunted during the month. Duszejko has a house on the edge of the forest. She has a couple of neighbours, one who treats animals very badly and another she will later come to know better. Her past is not spelt out but there is a suggestion that she has been an engineer and that she worked overseas, possibly on forms of aid work. Perhaps she was a form of hippy traveller? Now she has three interests. She teaches English part-time in the school in town, she explores astrology and she cares passionately about the wildlife in the region. This brings her into confrontations with the hunters, i.e. most of the older male population, and the police to whom she regularly reports the ‘murder’ of animals killed by the hunters and rails against the absurdity of a legal killing one day that is illegal the next (i.e. at the end of the designated monthly season).
This is a familiar thematic of an ‘odd’ character (in the context of local culture) and conventionally, the narrative then provides Duszejko with a small team of potential collaborators who will help her against the strength of the local hunting lobby. She meets a young IT specialist and his girlfriend, Boros (Miroslav Krobot) a Czech entomologist, and her neighbour ‘Matoga’ (Wiktor Zborowski) who also has a back story. Each of these individuals has something in their past which makes them an outsider in the region. The narrative is an eco-thriller on the basis of the struggle to protect the wildlife from the hunters. But perhaps it is more a question of the brutality of hunting and the extension of that brutality across the local culture? I was struck by the difference between hunting in the UK (influenced by social class and the ecological damage caused by maintaining large populations of game species impacting on other flora and fauna) and the more widespread hunting culture in the rest of Europe which is more ‘open’ but more pervasive. I’m thinking about films such as The Hunters (Sweden 1996) or The Hunt (Denmark 2012) both of which share some elements with Pokot. The hunting crowd in Pokot includes most of the men in the district and the ‘club-like’ feel of this fraternity also has links to science fiction/horror narratives like The Stepford Wives (1975/2004) in which the men in a community secretly replace their wives with simulacra/android robots.
But this film also draws on both crime fiction and fairy tales. An older woman who acts as a kind of animal detective investigating the murders of several hunters recalls Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, though the murders themselves might have taken place in the mythical world of Midsummer Murders. There is also a suggestion that the filmmakers have turned to Angela Carter and her ideas about traditional fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood is referenced and, although I shouldn’t think it is intended, there seems to be a kind of reverse Wicker Man narrative in which the outsider, instead of being sacrificed, turns the tables on the local community of hunters.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure of the film, but I think most audiences will guess what has been happening re the murders. The coda offers what most of us would consider as a ‘happy ending’ though in the discussion which followed our screening some voices raised concerns about violent actions being condoned because the victims deserved to die. I’m interested in this resurgence of what I have termed the ‘eco-thriller’. Thinking about it, the eco-thriller is a much larger category than I have suggested, but in the past it has mostly been about large corporations threatening to damage the environment and it has linked in to the ‘technology gone wrong’ elements of science fiction or the ‘disaster’ narratives of climate change such as The Day After Tomorrow (US 2004). Pokot belongs to a more defined category in which ecology issues are presented in more subtle ways and lead to more individual actions. I suspect we will see more films like this. I also wonder if there is the suggestion of a new tendency in Polish cinema in which Poles who have been abroad and returned home bring a new perspective to life in modern Poland. I was reminded of my experience of watching The Birds Are Singing in Kigali (Poland 2017), a very different film dealing with PTSD suffered by a central character on her return from Rwanda.
Mainstream Polish films are getting released in the UK, targeting the large Polish diaspora community, but more art-orientated films are harder to find. Pokot is available on a Region 2 DVD. One last trivia point, Tomasz Kot, the star of Cold War (Poland 2018), which made £1 million at the UK box office, plays the town’s prosecutor in Pokot.
Sébastien Marnier’s second film as a director (he also co-wrote) is pleasing in that it deals with the key political, indeed existential, issue of our time: ecological destruction. It’s couched as a thriller where Laurent Laffitte’s Pierre takes over, as a substitute teacher in a private school, a class of gifted children. Their previous teacher jumped out of the class’ second floor window during a test. The slow burn development of what’s going on in the six of the kids’ creepy minds is satisfying but the denouement can’t hold the burden of what precedes it.
The kids could be out of The Damned or Village of the Damned such is their apparent disassociation from the social world; unsurprisingly the other children in the school see them as elitist (which is a bit rich considering they all are privileged). Pierre endeavours to understand them (suitably he’s completing a thesis on Kafka reflecting the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in) and rails against the Principal who (a malaise in France as well as the UK apparently) is only concerned with results. However, it is always difficult to convince a teacher (ex in my case) of the veracity of school life and I cannot believe that violent attack on Pierre would have been shrugged off in such a perfunctory fashion (unless that’s France for you).
There are plenty of beautiful, portentous, shots of the sky and I kept expecting aliens to arrive but, as the horrifying ‘found footage’ of animal cruelty and desecration of the Earth shows, the real threat are humans who are depriving our children of a future. Zombie Zombie’s music heavy-handedly emphasises the point, however the film needed a bigger climax though the final scene is quite haunting.
I expect that some audiences will be disappointed/baffled by Night Moves – because they won’t get the thriller they were expecting from promo material like the poster above. On the other hand director Kelly Reichardt’s fans will know what to expect and should ‘enjoy’ the film. I use the scare quotes because Ms Reichardt’s films are clever and satisfying exercises in constructing a certain kind of narrative around various themes. The big shock here is that Michelle Williams is not in the cast and, despite Dakota Fanning’s expertise, I did miss Ms Williams.
Night Moves is a film about ‘ecological activists’ and the title refers to a boat, a motor launch, with that name. If I understood the dialogue exchanges, ‘Night Moves’ does indeed refer to the Arthur Penn film noir from 1975 (there is a discussion of movie titles that I couldn’t completely follow but the previous owner of the boat was a film fan). I haven’t seen that film since it came out and I don’t remember much except that I think it was the film in which a character describes an Eric Rohmer film as being “like watching paint dry” – an ironic comment on some of the pauses in the Reichardt film? In this new film, the boat’s name might be seen as describing the central moment in the narrative when the three ‘eco warriors’ attempt to blow up a dam in Oregon (to protest about the excessive power usage in the US and the diverting of water for golf courses). This is the basis of the ‘thriller’, but mostly I think Reichardt doesn’t play it as a thriller. In fact, I think she plays it as a story about guilt with the central character Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) as a possible film noir hero, a form of ‘doomed man’. Nick was with me and he disagreed – he didn’t like the film and was irritated by what Reichardt was doing with the thriller tropes.
This is a long shot I know, but at one point the location switches to ‘Medford, Oregon’. If you’ve seen Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, you’ll know that the witness who places Fred McMurray at the scene of the crime is a “Medford man. Medford, Oregon”. Since Reichardt used a similar kind of reference in Wendy and Lucy (a man reading a specific novel), I’m tempted to see these two references (i.e. with the boat’s name) to films noir as deliberate pointers. The three activists comprise Josh/Eisenberg, a worker on an organic family homestead, Dena (Dakota Fanning), a rich girl working in a bathhouse/hot tub establishment and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard), an ex-Marine whose ‘day job’ I didn’t catch but he is clearly the ‘professional’ here.
Kelly Reichardt sticks to her established methods in this film. She doesn’t explain everything about the characters. We have to slowly glean bits of narrative information. Equally she doesn’t spell out the theme and give us clear arguments to follow. We are shown the Pacific North West in all its Autumn glory in the forests, on the hills and in the valleys. We also experience the impact of the dams and flooded valley when ‘Night Moves’ is steered past the rotting tall trees whose roots are now deep underwater. When we get a debate about ecology and political action it is played obliquely at the breakfast table of the organic farm as well as via a campaign film screened on a sheet in a pop-up cinema. On both occasions, Josh is a silent observer – Eisenberg’s performance toned down and internalised so that it is hard to know what Josh thinks. The suspense in the film is evident in the act itself but don’t go expecting explosions the aftermath of the act happens off-screen. Instead, the real suspense comes afterwards and focuses on Josh – will he fall apart, can he go back to an anonymous life? I don’t want to give away any of the later plot points – suffice to say that we do get the ‘usual’ Kelly Reichardt ending which makes you think. I thought this one was especially effective.
I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film and it is interesting that different audiences can produce quite different readings. One commentator clearly didn’t like it and thinks it has a very old-fashioned feel in terms of its subject matter. She also suggests that Dakota Fnning is underused and that Peter Sarsgaard is ‘lazy typecasting’. I think those are good points. I’d add that the intriguing Alia Shawkat is also wasted in a minor role. Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond don’t seem that interested in the Harmon character who seems a little like a plot device (Sarsgaard is indeed typecast as a slightly sleazy character) and I did want to know more about Dena. Since Reichardt tells us very little about her three central characters, it is quite difficult to see the film as ‘character-driven’. Even Josh has no background, so we don’t know what he is giving up/can’t go back to etc. Is the film ‘dated’ in terms of its subject? Jonah Raskin, who was clearly around forty years ago expresses what might be a common response in some parts:
But the characters belong to a timeless time. I can’t imagine that an ecoterrorist in 2014 might do what Josh, Dena and Harmon do on screen. It’s also unlikely that they’d be able to buy hundreds of pounds of fertilizer to make a bomb.
Night Moves would have had a great deal more punch had it come out in 1970 at the time of the first Earth Day. Now, 44 years later, it feels like an artifact from another era.
Hmm! I can see what is being said here but I think that the 1970s feel is deliberate. I’ve already suggested that Reichardt is deliberately referencing a 1975 neo noir in Penn’s Night Moves. I think that she is also possibly evoking those paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as Pakula’s North West-set The Parallax View (1974), not in terms of similar stories but in that sense of a character who fears being followed and ‘found out’. I’ve not been to Oregon but I get the sense of a persistent possible alternative culture that has survived alongside US capitalism since the 1950s and possibly earlier. Reichardt and Raymond keep worrying away at how people behave in the region and this seems like a film that ‘fits’ a certain kind of auteurist take on the region. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and music composer Jeff Grace both worked on Reichardt’s earlier Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Reichardt does her own editing so there is a strong collaborative approach to the story. What will they choose next, I wonder?
The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.
Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.
The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.
‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.
The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.
Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.
The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.