By Adam Glasspool
It can be frustrating when half way through a film you ask yourself why you’re watching it and can’t come up with a satisfying answer only, to continue watching it. The answer is usually that I’m watching a film with the person who is giving me a lift home. In this case it’s that the film is curiously compelling, even if it is consistently testing at every turn.
Essential Killing (2010) is a film about a member of the Taliban (played by a phenomenal Vincent Gallo) who kills three American soldiers in Afghanistan and is then captured. Upon being beaten, interrogated and tortured he tells his captors nothing and, as such, is transported to a Black Site in Eastern Europe. Only on the way there his transport van crashes leading him to escape into the snowy wilderness. What ensues is the Taliban member doing whatever it takes to survive whilst he is hunted by the army, even if it includes killing people. It plays out like a warped version of The Fugitive (1993) in which Harrison Ford is replaced by a character who doesn’t utter a single word, is a terrorist and ultimately a character you can’t sympathise with in any way shape or form.
The lack of sympathy for the main character is ultimately what drags the film down a little. For all of the incredible camera work that ducks in and out of trees, the superb silent performance from Gallo and the masterful sound design that takes the audience from inside an ear after an explosion to being caught in a bear trap, to hallucinating in the wilderness, the fact that it’s next to impossible to empathise with the protagonist is a real problem. It might actually be dishonest to refer to this character as a protagonist. It’s not that you even feel yourself disliking him, even though you should as he’s in the Taliban – you sicko, director Jerzy Skolimowski does an incredible job of keeping the viewer neutral by adding almost no politics to the film at all. The problem isn’t a feeling of distaste; it’s that you just don’t feel anything for him. Consequently all you’re doing is watching somebody wandering around a forest, occasionally killing people and making questionable decisions on what he should and should not eat.
And yet you keep watching. There is something utterly compelling about the character’s exploits, seeing how far one man will go to simply survive. There is the overriding feeling that this film thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is, and it misses a trick by never knowingly acknowledging the contrasts and parallels between an extremist killing for his beliefs and a human being killing to survive, but it remains a film that is difficult to look away from.
In parts it’s almost poignant, it’s certainly gripping, but due to a poor choice of leading character, it’s hardly essential. The DVD comes packaged with a largely pointless FX reel and an incredibly interesting interview with Skolimowski.