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

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article It has become almost a cliché in cinematic depictions of conflict: a bomb explodes nearby, a character crouches and the sound drops out, followed, a few seconds later, by a prolonged whine, real sound only to be reasserted after a suitable interval of people running around, flashes of blood, and the smoke finally clearing. We have seen it in Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Thin Red Line (1998) and Children of Men (2006). Even a man as rough and tumble as Russell Crowe in Master and Commander (2003) has a wobbly moment when on the receiving end of some Napoleonic shock and awe. But the disorientation is temporary. The confusion of battle involves a crisis of momentary delirium from which clarity and some sense of direction and narrative will eventually form. Our main character will get off the beach, up the hill, on deck and the film can go on.

In Essential Killing, the polarities are reversed. Disorientation is fundamental, almost total, and is only occasionally broken by moments of almost sublime, dreamlike clarity. The camera hovers above a foreign landscape, possibly Afghanistan (but actually filmed in Israel). The soundtrack is a clatter of helicopter blades and the inane dialogue of contractors, pilots and soldiers. A man, credited as Mohammed (played by Vincent Gallo) but unnamed in the film, grabs a rocket launcher off a dead man and kills three Americans. The helicopter hunts him, fires a rocket, and then we have the explosion as he falls to the ground clutching his ears. The film never quite recovers.


Shell shock (as it was once called before it became battle fatigue in World War II and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Vietnam) is not a two-minute interval. As an audience, we participate in Mohammed’s disorientation. Sometimes the camera will follow him, and sometimes gives his point of view directly. We are hooded, we are deafened to his interrogator’s shouting, lip-reading as the officer shouts into the camera. We experience the modern West as a series of alienating details - the crack smoking contractors, the torture supervised by a doctor, the Heavy Metal in the SUV.

One of the most disorientating effects of the film is to have no dialogue spoken to the audience. It’s not just that there isn’t a voiceover, directly addressing the audience, but all speech in the film is treated as mere background noise. Banal chatter of the helicopter pilots, orders being shouted, routines being followed; but we get absolutely no exposition. We know nothing about who Mohammed is, aside from flashbacks which could, we later realise, and/or be flashforwards, glimpses of the future and rather than a lost home: a domestic afterlife. Perhaps Mohammed also has amnesia; maybe even he doesn’t know how he found himself in the middle of a war. After all, he didn’t arrive with a gun. He seems to have just stumbled into the film.


He is obviously capable of using a rocket launcher, quick-witted in his escape and ingenious in how he evades immediate capture, but his silent actions have the opportunism of Chaplinesque improvisation. He is initially trying to surrender to a soldier who is too busy shouting into his mobile phone against the deafening sound of his music. When the soldier fails to turn, Mohammed sees his chance and snatches his gun. But, again like Chaplin, he seems to be plagued by ludicrous bad luck. He escapes without his shoes in the snow; he steps on a man trap; when he hides out near a logging site a tree falls ludicrously upon him. He is a man at war with the world, but the world physically attacks him back, every which way he turns. Animals might help him, like the dog he rescues, but they can just as well attack him, or be completely indifferent to him, like the upside down deer he sees, waking up in the hay rick.

Despite his predicament, actually because of his predicament, there is something of the Holy Fool to Mohammed, as there also is to Chaplin. As well as being Mohammed, he is also a Job, a Wandering Jew, a Christ in the wilderness. He suffers intensely throughout the film, undergoing desperate hunger and cold. He is poisoned by the berries he hopes will sustain him, he is wounded and attacked by dogs. He resorts to the most extreme measures to survive, eating bugs, tree bark and raw fish and is anguished by the violence he himself resorts to. To make his holy status more readily recognisable, he is allowed to retain his beard and long hair, despite the fact we clearly see all the other prisoners having their heads and beards shaved. The film isn’t interested in this kind of consistency, just as the political angle of the first ten minutes is swiftly abandoned as if that too can’t survive the rigours of the wilderness.

But of course, Mohammed is not a holy man. His sufferings bring no revelation to him. He is involved in the suffering of the world but also guilty of causing suffering. Although not on the level of John Rambo, the body-count he racks up is nothing to be sniffed at. He kills seven people on screen and is clearly prepared to kill more by the end. It is a marvel that we sympathise with him, and yet oddly, confusingly, we do.


As a Homeric wanderer, Mohammed is trying to find his way home and home for him, as for Odysseus, is a woman. She could be the woman we glimpse in the flash-whatevers, but she could almost be any woman. The desperately absurd, tragi-comic moment when he forces a woman, at gunpoint, to let him suck her lactating breast is, on one level, an indication of his reaching a new low, literally stealing from the mouth of babes; but, on another level, this is where he wants to get back to. The woman who takes him in, deaf and dumb as he himself seems to be (we can never know for certain), seems prepared to give him unconditional love, or at least first aid and care, without hesitation. The disorientating effect of returning to something like civilisation is signalled wryly (and there is a beautiful wry sense of humour throughout the film) by the pok-pok sound of an on-going tennis match on the television set.

This marvellously odd film follows its main character, setting out to be one thing and stumbling in to being something else completely. From a war film, to a chase thriller, to a surviving-against-the-odds movie (e.g.: Rescue Dawn, 2006), to an I’m-not-sure-what; I suppose we have to conclude, as Mohammad rides off on his horse, that this one got away.

This Alternate Take was published on April 05, 2011.

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