‘Essential Killing’ could have been a landmark examination of primal humanity

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Essential Killing

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

2010, Poland/Norway/Ireland/Hungary

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.

Lindsay Peters

2 Comments
  1. Kate says

    Lindsay – awesome! I thoroughly enjoyed your review. And you’re right – Day Night Day Night is amazing and everyone should stop what they’re doing and get it. It actually has been released on DVD, and I suspect good video stores would have it.

  2. guest says

    I find much to agree with in this review but do have several significant disagreements. The two that stand out are that I question if it is reading more into one aspect than the film provides while overlooking implications in the other.
    The first being the implied assertion of “political judgment” when I see very little in the film itself. I find the film striking in the absence of political advocacy; especially with such a politicized topic and have heard others express disappointment that it does less than they wanted in this department. Even or uneven, political commentary seemed essentially absent.
    I just heard Skolimowski interviewed and speaking directly about this on BBC Night Waves: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00zt60s/Night_Waves_28_03_2011/
    Similarly, the film eschews obvious moralizing or taking sides. I found this a asset to the film.
    Second, while the assault on the breast-feeding woman may have been shocking, I didn’t find it preposterous. I found it in context and working to effectively illustrate his regression towards animalism as well as towards a kind of infantilism – which was furthered with the interactions with Emmanuelle Seigner’s mute, who also seems to share Mohammand’s outsider identity (a theme which runs through all of Skolimowski’s films).

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