To Kill a Beaver: Karlovy Vary Film Review
Poland's Jan Jakub Kolski presents a gritty and gripping hit-man thriller.
Testing Jean-Luc Godard’s celebrated maxim that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, Poland’s Jan Jakub Kolski adds an agreeably psychotic twist to the pulpy ingredients of the hit-man thriller in To Kill A Beaver. Crafted with the crisp assurance of an artisan, Kolski’s upmarket genre piece earned a shared Best Actor prize at last week’s Karlovy Vary film festival. With the right marketing, it has a sufficiently taut style and strong plot to find an audience beyond the usual limited markets of subtitled Euro cinema. It also feels ripe for a Hollywood remake, though perhaps Mel Gibson would be wise to steer clear of beaver-themed projects from now on.
World-weary and implacable, Lubos plays the film’s anti-hero Eryk, a 40-ish loner on a mysterious mission back to his semi-derelict family home in the rural Polish backwoods. Spare flashbacks establish him as a freelance hit man mentally scarred by his battlefield experience with the Russian military in Chechnya, although it slowly becomes clear he is not an entirely reliable narrator. The reason for this homecoming appears to be some kind of assassination, never fully explained, which is orchestrated from afar via cryptic phone conversations with a gravel-voiced boss.
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But when Eryk discovers runaway teenage girl Bezi (Pawelkiewicz) using his house as a refuge, his plans are suddenly derailed. These two wounded outsiders form a sexually charged relationship which initially appears idyllic, but which exposes both to lethal danger and eventually leads to a bloodbath of revenge killing. Some may see it coming, but there is a powerful final twist which casts the rest of the story in a new light.
Though acclaimed in Poland for his magical realist style, Kolski keeps the action in To Kill A Beaver naturalistic, lean and gripping. In one bravura sequence, Eryk sets up a firing range in a nearby outbuilding, his point-of-view shots mirroring the jittery dynamics of violent computer games. Real beavers feature tangentially in the plot, no doubt with symbolic intent, as pests that Eryk repeatedly tries to rid from his family’s land. And while this story takes place in a noir-ish netherworld of sexual abuse and brutal murder, there are recurring visual motifs - faraway vapour trails, sun-dappled meadows, watery sunsets - that add a dash of poetry.
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In places, To Kill A Beaver feels confused and confusing, straining for a kind of profound resonance it can not quite achieve. But it redeems itself with its unhinged finale, which resolves all the plot’s contradictions in an orgy of shock revelations and savage executions. A potent blend of pulpy violence and existential bleakness, this is a solid new addition to Polish cinema’s long tradition of intelligent thrillers.
Venue: Karlovy Vary film festival, press screening, July 3
Production companies: Tramway Film Studio, SPI Film Studio
Cast: Eryk Lubos, Agnieszka Pawelkiewicz, Mariusz Bonaszewski
Director: Jan Jakub Kolski
Writer: Jan Jakub Kolski
Producers: Bogdan Kisielewski, Wieslaw Lysakowki, Piotr Reisch
Cinematography: Michael Pakulski
Editor: Piotr Kolski
Music: Darius Gorniok
Sales company: Tramway Film Studio
Rating TBC, 99 minutes