In Review: Essential Killing (2010)

By Phil Guy

Skolimowski’s latest endeavor aligns itself with recent films 127 Hours (2010) and The Road (2009) in that it seeks to explore human perseverance – both physical and psychological – in the face of absolute hopelessness. The Road had a doomed protagonist in post-Apocalyptic America, 127 Hours featured a mountain climber trapped alone in a cavern and Essential Killing pits an escaped Middle Eastern prisoner against squads of soldiers in a vast snow-covered forest in Eastern Europe. Battling against extreme conditions and with no refuge in sight he must hide, steal and kill in order to preserve his fleeting chance of freedom.

At first glance the film appears to be a far more political exercise than its recent contemporaries. Its decision to inhabit a Muslim terrorist – who is detained and subjected to water-board torture after killing three American soldiers – promises an interesting angle on the War on Terror. But despite taking a personal perspective from a supporter of Muslim extremism – potentially a very bold move – the protagonist’s political standpoint actually has relatively little bearing on the film’s progression, especially after his escape in the opening half hour. As the film settles it becomes a straight survival story and the earlier political context has only a minor impact: a loose topical idea establishes the scenario, but it soon fizzles out when the narrative moves away from square one.

Vincent Gallo plays the terrorist and is therefore given the unenviable task of carrying the film’s drama in its entirety. This is made more impressive by the fact that his character is left without a single line of dialogue. Through body language alone Gallo must convey the desperation and physical torment of his escaped prisoner and he rises to the occasion unfalteringly. He stumbles fearfully through the film’s episodic encounters: avoiding search-helicopters, soldiers, wildlife and the ever-present threat of starvation. He commits murder – as the film’s title suggests – only because he must, and Gallo’s looks of absolute terror when he is committing these crimes are all-important in humanising an otherwise unknowable lead character. Skolimowski warps the man’s journey into a kind of eerie dream world using visceral images of the snow-covered environment and shots from the air to give a surreal, detached impression of loneliness and utter isolation.

It’s this side of Essential Killing that is by far the most effective. Scenes of the escapee staggering across frozen plains – his bloodied clothes in vivid contrast with a white horizon – are the ones that stand out rather than the film’s more violent or purposefully shocking moments. As such, the overall impact of the film is rather more sedate and meditative than its earlier scenes might suggest. Its
pace slows continually in tandem with the terrorist’s life force until it becomes a kind of trance-like meander, drifting slowly from scene to scene until its subject meets his only conceivable fate.

That the film composes itself, shakes off any political dabbling and adopts the form of a forlornly atmospheric survival story is a relief and makes Essential Killing much less of a disappointment than its messy opening scenes threaten. It may be a far cry from the searing political thriller that the marketing campaign promised but as an ambiguous and enigmatic story of human desperation – and a fine example of pure physical acting – Essential Killing is a worthwhile watch.

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