By Marty Mulrooney
Essential Killing is an award-winning political action thriller helmed by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. It stars Vincent Gallo as Mohammed, a man captured by the US military in Afghanistan after killing three Americans, before being sent to a secret detention centre in Europe. When the truck he is being transported in crashes and rolls over, he escapes into an icy, snowy wilderness, far removed from the desert home he once knew. Hunted down by US army forces, Mohammed must do whatever it takes to survive against the odds…
Although I have already given a brief outline of Essential Killing’s plot, the film itself gives you far less to work with. Places and characters are not explicitly named and Vincent Gallo doesn’t speak a single word throughout the entire film. When he kills three Americans during the film’s opening, he seems genuinely terrified, yet his motives are left hazy. When he is later waterboarded before his eventual escape, you quickly forget about what he has done and instead recoil in horror that a person could be treated in such a manner, regardless of their crime.
The majority of the film deals with Mohammed’s desperate struggle to escape as he treks through snowy forest and barren wasteland. Wild dogs, bear traps, armed soldiers and freezing temperatures are all obstacles that he must overcome to survive and continue onwards. There are many ‘essential killings’ carried out during this time and it is to Gallo’s credit that, although the film’s protagonist is essentially a terrorist and a killer, he still comes across as human enough – without uttering a single word – to evoke the viewer’s continued sympathy. Nobody should have to go through this.
Although the violence is intense when it does occur, the most discomfort is to be had from watching Mohammed getting continually worn down both mentally and physically. This inevitably leads to him taking desperate measures, such as eating ants from the cold earth, or – in one of the film’s most shocking moments – breast feeding from a passing pregnant woman as she is held at gunpoint. Apparently this scene was done with a genuine lactating actress, which makes it even more difficult to watch upon second viewing.
Much easier to watch is the cinematography, which remains hauntingly beautiful throughout. You can almost feel the crisp air, the frozen branches, the icy grass. The contrast between the desert opening and the snowy main location are obvious, yet their differences truly underline how much a fish out of water Mohammed actually is, making his struggle – often barefoot in the snow – all the more impactful. The contrast between bright red blood and powdery white snow is even more apparent, especially when a chainsaw is thrown into the mix…
Essential Killing falls down in several key areas. Gallo is superb in what is essentially a one man show, yet it is difficult to ever truly empathise with him, even if you do feel sorry for him in a general sense. He finally makes peaceful human contact near the end of the film with a woman named Margaret (Emmanuelle Seigner) yet like Mohammed, she never utters a single word. What could have been a powerful emotional element of the film is left until the very end, and then brushed over completely. Essential Killing is an uncomfortable film to watch that nonetheless remains watchable due to strong direction and a convincing lead actor. Yet without any payoff to the story or any real meaning behind the narrative, it becomes an average thriller that ultimately doesn’t deliver.
6 OUT OF 10
AMO’s review copy of Essential Killing was provided on Blu-ray by Organic Marketing. Special features include: Helicopter Special Effects, Interview With Director Jerzy Skolimowski, Trailer.
Essential Killing is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.