Film: Essential Killing
UK Release date: 11th July 2011Certificate: 15
Running time: 84 mins
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Stig Frode Henriksen, David L. Price
Studio: Artificial Eye
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
Director Jerzy Skolimowski, who took a 17-year hiatus before returning in 2008 with Four Nights With Anna, once said, “as a poet my mind is trained along the path of poetic associations - I'm not afraid to wander away from direct narrative - I feel safe with a story that tempts you to believe or disbelieve”. His latest offering, Essential Killing, starring the ever-impressive Vincent Gallo, could certainly be proof in the pudding, but will it taste all the sweeter for it?
Captured by the US military in Afghanistan, Mohammed (Gallo) is transported to a secret detention centre in Europe. When the vehicle he is riding in evades an animal in the middle of the road, it crashes, allowing the prisoners a chance at freedom.
Mohammed finds himself suddenly free and on the run in a snow-blanketed forest, a world away from the desert home he knew. Relentlessly pursued by an army that does not officially exist, he must confront the necessity to kill in order to survive...
There are certainly things to like about Skolimowski’s virtually dialogue-free chase movie, based on the troubles of a man whose name we only discover when watching the credits roll, but the script isn’t one of them. Vincent Gallo’s performance as the main man has an emotional intensity you come to expect from such a fine actor, and the visuals, in such a stunning location, are used to great effect, capturing the look and feel of such a desolate world in which freedom is hardly that.
The opening gambit, in which Mohammed defends himself against three US soldiers before being hunted down by a helicopter overhead is a joy to behold, as are the ultimately pointless twenty seconds spent simply soaring over the beautiful landscape. Mohammed’s world deserves to be explored further, but not during this movie, and certainly not to replace a narrative already lost in the snow.
The causes and consequences are skirted over throughout, with lazy flashbacks and premonitions adding little substance or empathy for a man who takes no prisoners, even if the US army does. Having said that, question marks are already raised early on when Mohammed is pretty much abandoned by his foes, other than a heavy-metal worshipping duo with their minds clearly not on the task at hand – would they really not bother searching and just leave the prisoner behind?
A resolute focus on Mohammed’s bid for freedom and stoic suffering ensures that the film doesn’t get bogged down by the complexities of war, but it also means that a long journey trudging through the snow to find food and settling for bark, or a few berries he inexplicably licks to make sure, from what we can only ascertain, that they won’t kill him instantly, isn’t as thrilling as it could be. There are some finer moments on offer, for example, when the dogs are on his scent and hounding him into submission, or later on, when a dog he uses to distract the other mutts returns in all its face-licking glory, but all too often the viewer is left to question the majority of key scenes.
Why should we empathise with somebody who is more likely to kill than his captors? It certainly doesn’t make him very likeable, and along with other moments, including another canine that just chomped on his last chew and a baby that has little choice but to share his meal (a scene clearly put there for shock value and very little else), Essential Killing fails to captivate us despite an energetic score and dreamlike visuals. In a stiflingly bleak environment, narrative barely gets a look in – Mohammed’s encounter with a mute woman serving only to extend the lack of dialogue rather than anything remotely important, like structure, plot and turning points.
All of which leaves the film in an oddly curious place. Wandering away from narrative has produced a visual delight, and although the film will annoy many of its audience, it’s still a beautiful achievement, cinematically at least. Some will revel in its twist on the war on terror angle, be fascinated by Gallo’s haunting performance, and congratulate Skolimowski’s ability to use sub-zero settings and virtually no dialogue to such great effect. Others, however, will struggle to root for such a ruthless protagonist, be angered by the stereotypical nature of Mohammed’s enemies, question such a lengthy journey in which the reward is scant, and if they own a dog, will no doubt feel as humiliated as the horse during the film’s dreamily evocative finale.
Essential Killing wanders too far away from its gorgeous snow-swept visuals to offer a revisit. Gallo's performance is exceptional, but his tendency to attack rather than talk and a lack of empathy for him or his adversaries leaves a sour taste in the mouth, similar to breast-fed milk or a handful of bark.