The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Essential Killing

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Jerzy Skolimowski
Length 83 mins
Certificate 15
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

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Trailer.

Experienced Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s new film has one of those two-word titles (Fatal Attraction [1987], Basic Instinct [1992], etc.) which seems immediately suspect, promising drama, but hinting at a bland lack of imagination. Thankfully, the film belies this first impression with an almost sublime strangeness, making it both viscerally disturbing and thought-provoking.

The story (such as it is) makes for a quick summary: an unidentified and nonspecific enemy combatant is captured in Afghanistan - or it could be Iraq, or Pakistan. Interrogated, he refuses to speak, and, dressed in the tell-tale orange jump suit, is transported to a North European country, presumably on his way to Guantanamo Bay, or some even murkier hole. Fortuitously, he escapes when the convoy he is riding in has an accident. On the run, he is hunted and must resort to ever more extreme tactics to evade capture and simply survive.

The basic narrative template is similar to that used by First Blood (1982), The Fugitive (1993) or any number of other films, but here the plot is stripped down to its bare bones and the inessential is discarded. We are given very little in terms of back-story or explanation, save a few impressionistic flashbacks. There are no sub-plots, no conspiring super-council, no stony-faced pursuer who will reluctantly come to sympathise with his quarry. What we have instead is a driven performance by the erratically brilliant Vincent Gallo (for which he was rewarded at the 2010 Venice Film Festival), whose intense physical presence carries the film forward. The choice of Gallo as a recognisable (albeit not quite movie-star famous) American actor is of a piece with the film’s desire to manipulate our expectations. As Gallo’s character is literally displaced so the audience is generically wrong-footed. Is Gallo supposed to be a regular Taliban - or a ‘Johnny Taliban’, as the casting seems to suggest? Is he in fact ‘our hero’? Should we sympathise with this vulnerable looking-guy, rooting for him as ‘the star’? Is he refusing or unable to speak? Is he in fact an insurgent?

Complicating matters further is the most radical decision of stripping the film almost entirely of dialogue. Without language, without justification, without a name or a history, the protagonist, and the film itself, begin to feel as if they transcend their geo-political contexts. This could be a film about the 'war on terror', but it is more immediately a film about a man in the snow without any shoes. Although it starts like an Al Qaeda Rambo, Essential Killing soon becomes something much more elemental, telling a story as old as The Odyssey. Just as in the Homeric epic, the hero is both at war in the world and at war with the world, so he faces environments which are implacably hostile, from the deserts of his capture to the frozen northern forests of his escape, but the urge remains: to return home.

This review was published on April 03, 2011.