A lone-wolf former soldier and a teenage girl looking for love away from home make for the proverbial odd couple in “To Kill a Beaver,” a peculiar but intriguing character study from Polish helmer Jan Jakub Kolski (“Funeral for a Potato,” “Pornography”). With its emotionally congested characters, enigmatic occurrences and secluded location, the pic initially plays like a cold and not entirely comprehensible mystery, but Kolski slowly moves the puzzle pieces into place to reveal a captivating drama fueled by post-traumatic stress. After Karlovy Vary, fests should move in for the kill, with Euro ancillary pickups likely.
The hard, weather-beaten face of Polish soldier Eryk (Eryk Lubos), who has returned home from a stint in the Chechen War, reveals little beyond the fact he’s a man you don’t want mess with. But when he finds a teenage girl, Bezi (Agnieszka Pawelkiewicz), trespassing on his land, the lass takes an unexpected shine to him, stating that she “counts on him being a hospitable person.”
What this really means emerges only when Eryk discovers that, during his long absence, Bezi has decorated one of the upstairs rooms in his boarded-up house as her own. And it appears that she fully intends to continue to use her secret hideout after his return from the battlefield, resulting in an uneasy truce that suddenly tips over into something more.
Throughout, Eryk, who has installed surveillance cameras everywhere, receives clues about things hidden on his property and talks to a mysterious entity on the phone. Some flashbacks to his time in Chechnya further flesh out his character, depicting him as someone who isn’t much of a talker and seems to operate almost entirely on instinct.
The depravity of man and, perhaps paradoxically, the need for human warmth are some of the major topics explored here, with the pic’s mystery elements almost too neatly resolved by the film’s final reel. As filtered through Eryk’s damaged sensibility — suggested by occasionally inserted shaky p.o.v. shots — some apparently normal scenes quickly take on a slightly surreal quality, such as a sardonically funny dinner scene in which the former fighter tries to teach his housemate Russian, and a dramatically potent sequence in which Eryk comes face to face with Bezi’s farmer father (Marek Kasprzyk).
As with any character study, much depends on the work of the actors, and Lubos (“The Dark House,” “Made in Poland”) is perfect here as the emotionally damaged war veteran obeying his own specific orders while being both destabilized and humanized by his contact with the sprightly Bezi, played with natural affability by Pawelkiewicz.
Lensing in drab colors further adds to the desolate feel, while the rest of the tech package is pro. The metaphor involving the titular beavers, who keep throwing up dams in a brook on Eryk’s land, impeding the natural flow of the stream, is clear but thankfully not too on-the-nose.