‘Essential Killing’ could have been a landmark examination of primal humanity
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
Polish cinema has long been defined as a cinema of moral concern, with films like Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy (1993-1994) at its centre. Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest film, Essential Killing, starring the eternally polarizing Vincent Gallo, is a searingly relentless examination of man’s irrepressible quest for survival in the face of war. Skolimowski interweaves spiraling aerial shots of Middle Eastern desert and wintry Eastern European forests with the story of a wordless Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighter named Mohammed (Gallo) as he makes his way through a hostile landscape, following his capture and subsequent escape from imprisonment by U.S. troops. With panic-stricken eyes and unclear motivations, Mohammed encounters a series of adversaries in both human and animal form, which he eviscerates in the name of survival.
Gallo, winner of the Best Actor award at the 2010 Venice Film Festival for his performance, more than proves his worth, and it’s nice to see him put his energy towards something other than selling his sperm over the Internet. (Gallo is the godfather of famous-actor performance art; somehow these personal service ads now seem refreshingly candid compared to the unceasingly narcissistic antics of Joaquin Phoenix and James Franco). His silent performance, which ranges from consuming, terrorized panic to moments of ominous introspection, provides the anchor to this otherwise unwieldy film of unevenly executed political and moral commentary.
Skolimowski is clearly skilled in the art of depicting inner human conflict onscreen – his previous films Moonlighting (1982) and the critically noted yet little-seen Four Nights With Anna (2008) prove as much. However, Essential Killing approaches the complexity of contemporary warfare in a way that is ultimately essentialist in its unceasing excesses. Following a Fugitive-style prison caravan crash, one of Mohammed’s early victims is overheard receiving news that he is about to become a father of twins before Mohammed promptly shoots him with his own gun. This overt play to the viewer’s emotions is simultaneously alienating and fascinating in its unapologetically aggressive interrogation of moral polarities. And leaves the viewer wishing Tommy Lee Jones would just show up already, to lead a search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in this Eastern European forest. Alas, Mohammed’s ultimate foe comes in the form of his own destructively violent actions. He is continually at odds, and subsequently aligned with, an endless army of dogs, and recurring deer and horses, a motif that makes for a heavy-handed commentary on Mohammed’s own lack of humanity. The only other notable character in the film, a coincidentally deaf woman (Emmanuelle Seigner), brings a much-needed dose of human compassion to the film – her sympathetic reactions initially confound both the ravaged Mohammed and the desensitized viewer.
Had this film gone down a route of expositional sparsity previously traversed by the likes of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002), or managed to evoke the enigmatic elegance of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), Essential Killing could have been a landmark examination of primal humanity. Instead, the film strays into an uneven series of flashbacks and dream sequences where the viewer is meant to sympathize with Mohammed’s now-lost domestic life, and a mythologized Islam, both of which provide tentative motivations for his animalistic acts, like his shockingly preposterous assault of a breast-feeding woman. For another viewpoint, try and track down Julia Loktev’s 2006 film Day Night Day Night, a riveting minimalist meditation on the perspective of the Other in the war on terror. This film is far more nuanced in its political judgment than Skolimowski’s film, yet sadly remains unreleased on DVD. Screened at both the Venice and Toronto festivals last year, Essential Killing seems destined for limited theatrical attention. Go for a well-intentioned, awkwardly executed meditation on humanity and the lack thereof; stay for Gallo’s semen-free performance.