Essential Killing, the latest film from Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski starring Vincent Gallo, starts with a simple-but-compelling setup. Three Americans — a soldier and two clumsy civilian contractors — are marching alone through the magnificent desolation of Afghanistan, until a lone Taliban fighter (Gallo) ambushes and kills them. When he flees the scene, American troops give chase and quickly capture him.
In an efficient sequence (cleverly shown in part from Gallo’s obstructed POV behind his prisoner hood), he is brought to an American base where he is interrogated, waterboarded, and beaten. After being flown to Poland, presumably to be taken to a CIA ”black site”, the SUV transporting him skids off a snowy mountain road and crashes, allowing Gallo’s character to escape into the nearby woods. Alone, defenseless, and barefoot in brutal subzero conditions, he has to fight for survival through hostile terrain in an unknown land, and it soon becomes clear that whatever tortures the Americans gave him earlier are nothing compared to what’s in store for him in the Polish wilderness.
All of this takes place in the first 15 minutes, and from there Essential Killing takes the shape of a conventional escape/survival thriller, a genre with a long list of entries from Apocalypto to The Naked Prey to The Most Dangerous Game or any of a hundred other such movies. Gallo’s character undergoes most of the usual hardships and tortures that characters in these films typically suffer, and the film hits many beats familiar to the genre. He eats ants and tree bark, he dodges bullets fired from curiously-inaccurate marksmen, and at one point is hopelessly cornered only to be saved at the last moment by accidentally sliding down a previously-unseen cliff into a lake, the kind that are always popping up to save action movie stars at the last minute.
Indeed, he survives the brutal conditions and evades his pursuers with equal amounts of cunning and luck, and although it’s slightly more realistic and artfully done than the average escape thriller, it’s still not without the occasional implausibility or head-scratching character decision. (At one point, a helicopter doing aerial spotting for the ground troops chasing him inexplicably turns around and leaves, saying ”The troops will be converging on him any minute, let’s turn back.” You don’t have 30 seconds to stick around and make sure, guys?)
Gallo’s wordless (if not exactly silent) performance is decent enough, although it’s one of those performances that’s more impressive because of the obvious physical hardships that his character endures onscreen than for whatever comes across in his actual performance. In truth, he’s not given much more ‘acting’ to do than Jamie Lee Curtis does in a typical Halloween movie, and spends most of the film either running around, screaming in pain, or wandering in an exhausted daze between bouts of running and screaming.
Aside from Gallo, however, the real stars of the film are the breathtaking landscapes that Skolimowski captures with his location shooting. Right from the opening sequence featuring sumptuous helicopter shots of desert expanses, Skolimowski’s camera spends much of the film wandering with a Malick-like eye for natural beauty. As Gallo’s Talib is gradually swallowed by the brutality of his situation, his story is contrasted with the magnificent natural beauty that surrounds him — glowing sunrises, the delicate textures of ice on the surface of frozen snow, or the cathedral-like canopy of a fir forest. Although shot on lightweight digital cameras, Skolimowski and his cinematographer do a phenomenal job of capturing the brutal and awe-inspiring beauty of the locations.
Although much was initially made about the politics of Essential Killing‘s seemingly-provocative main character and plot, the truth is that it’s essentially an apolitical film, with Skolimowski more interested in one man’s descent into a primal state than in making any kind of a geopolitical point. Perhaps to prove his lack of an agenda, he makes an effort throughout the film to make neither his protagonist nor antagonists wholly sympathetic or unsympathetic. Although his captors torture and mistreat him, the ‘essentialness’ of some of the killing that Gallo’s character does in the film is often highly dubious. In one scene, he sneaks up on an unwitting soldier who has just learned via cellphone that he’s about to be a father, and kills him and his partner to steal their warm clothes. Later, there’s a particularly shocking chainsaw killing that seems rather unnecessary, unless it serves to demonstrate Gallo’s character’s deteriorating mental state.
Skolimowski is attempting to put an art house spin on the standard ‘chase thriller’, but it’s precisely this existential vagueness that is Essential Killing‘s biggest problem. The chases and fights are mostly well done, but no one is going to confuse Essential Killing with a Renny Harlin thrill ride, and the ‘action’, such as it is, is exhausted in the first half of the film.
From an intellectual standpoint, without any backstory, context, or any kind of inner life, Gallo’s character remains a complete cipher for the entire story, a wholly blank slate who is only seen reacting to one painful ordeal after another. As such, aside from being a basic meditation on endurance and the will to survive, there’s not that much to think about as we watch Gallo undergo torment after torment. At the end of the day, for all its potential, Essential Killing is really just a mediocre action film and an uninteresting art film. Although a perfectly serviceable genre thriller, there is less to it than meets the eye.
Still, if not entirely successful, it’s at least an interesting effort from a filmmaker with a longstanding interest in the behavior of individuals unwittingly caught up in the vicissitudes of geopolitics. Until Essential Killing, Skolimowski was perhaps best known for his 1982 success Moonlighting, another deceptively simple film with an air of allegory, about Polish expatriates in London during the last days of the Solidarity movement. Although a more subtle film than Essential Killing (in Moonlighting, star Jeremy Irons spends more time chatting up shopgirls than he does being chased by helicopter gunships), it still makes for an interesting point of comparison. And with this being only his third film after a 17-year hiatus, perhaps fans should simply be glad that he still has stories to tell.
The sole DVD extra is a brief five-minute promotional interview with the director.