Essential Killing

Essential Killing

****

Reviewed by: David Graham

Cult Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski's latest film marks a radical (in every sense of the word) departure from his already varied ouevre. On one hand, this is a deceptively simple, almost Boy's Own adventure, told with as little fuss as possible and boiled down to the genre's barest bones. On the other hand, it is a highly politicised work, unapologetically adopting the perspective of an Islamic insurgent forced to fight for survival on a quest of almost Biblical proportions.

The film opens with a trio of Western soldiers traversing a Middle Eastern ravine as if their presence there is a matter of divine right. They banter, they stumble, smoke cigarettes and even what appears to be crack, displaying a level of ignorance that some viewers will immediately feel is indicative of a predictable anti-US polemic. We are then made aware of an Islamic man within earshot ahead of them, his panic at their proximity contrasting with their blissful naivete. As he frantically tries to make a silent escape, he finds himself boxed into a corner with a dead soldier carrying a rocket launcher.

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Skolimowski skilfully employs jittery point-of-view shots to ratchet up the tension as the man backs further into the darkness of the cave, breathlessly clutching a weapon he is obviously hesitant to use, while the soldiers stop for rest only feet away...

To say more about the man's fate hereafter would be to blunt the film's brutal impact. Since the director bravely chooses to forgo opening credits, it may come as a shock to some to recognise a Western actor in the central role. To those acquainted with his previous work, it may come as an even bigger shock to realise his performance is entirely wordless; what would be a brave role for any actor to tackle becomes somewhat subversive in the hands of infamous self-aggrandeur Vincent Gallo.

While many would have milked this gruelling challenge for all the award-baiting gurning it potentially allows, Gallo shows remarkable integrity and restraint (ironically bagging himself a few festival awards in the process). As an artist pushing 50, it is easy to forget just how diverse Gallo's career has been, from his painting to his music and, of course, his film work. His selfless display of endurance here is light years from the impudent upstart who notoriously declared his own heartfelt indie gem Buffalo '66 'the greatest independent film of the Nineties': he truly disappears into the role.

And so the audience is dragged along with him, barely having time for breath as he is whisked from his arid homeland through a series of alienating encounters which reduce him to a savage beast. Skolimowski imparts a sense of religious significance to his travails, showing us via feverish dreams (which may also be memories and premonitions) how the man wrestles with his faith throughout everything he does and is made to do.

The audience is forced to consider if the man is justified in any of this; initial sympathies developed through the now-obligatory representation of the West's unnecessary Middle Eastern occupation are challenged when Gallo's character finds himself resorting to aggressive animalistic behaviour in the foreign environment he is stranded in. It is also interesting to consider the role of the animals themselves in the film: they seem to be juxtaposed with the man to emphasise both his plight and his regression, their frequent appearance taking on an almost spiritual aspect as his journey progresses. Some of the scenes in the film's latter half skirt dangerously close to being ridiculous, but the fear and furtive paranoia behind Gallo's eyes ground his actions in reality.

The cinematography is jarringly stunning, with episodes of pursuit and suspense broken up by breathtaking vistas of harsh landscapes. The sound design is also outstanding, making the audience feel the man's pain and hardship at every turn, while a gnawing, grating soundtrack is employed judiciously to maximize the discomfort in the many unbearable situations. The film - populated by nameless characters and with little to no dialogue - is mercifully short at 83 minutes, but every second of it adds to the overall experience. Events towards the end may seem a tad unbelievable and forced, but our involvement in the man's ordeal keeps us invested in his fate, with much to ponder as the credits finally roll.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2011
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Essential Killing packshot
An interrogated man goes on the run.
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