Essential Killing

Essential Killing featured image

By Marc Glassman

Essential Killing
Jerzy Skolimowski, director and co-writer w/Ewa Piaskowska
Jeremy Thomas, producer
Starring: Vincent Gallo (The Fugitive), Emmanuelle Seigner
Winner: Venice Film Festival–Special Jury Prize and Best Actor Award
Mar de Plata–Best Film

When a film opens with a bearded man being captured by American soldiers in harsh, mountainous sunlight after he’s killed three of their comrades, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you know where the movie is going. And you’d be wrong. Instead of sweltering Guantanamo and yet another narrative about the horrors of incarceration in prison camps, Essential Killing shifts gears, tilting northward to acres of snow and a tale that is more existential than political.

The Americans never reach their wintry camp after capturing their man and flying him out of his country. One of their convoy of cars and trucks slides off the highway and crashes downhill, allowing its prisoner to escape. Seizing the opportunity, the warrior kills more soldiers and drives off into a dense forest in the middle of the night.

And the chase is on. Ground troops assisted by helicopters track down the grim Muslim soldier (we know his religion through flashbacks of prayers to Allah) but–though they come close—can never capture him. Eventually, he escapes far enough into the woods that his tracks can’t be found.

But soldiers aren’t the only threat to this mute, murderous survivor. He has no food and is unprepared for such a freezing environment. Anyone he meets is a potential enemy; so are the dogs and other animals in the forest.

Gradually, the audience’s sympathy must shift to the fate of this alien figure–truly a stranger in a strange land. As he eats bark and snow, you wonder: how long can he last? The camera dwells on this odd terrifying–and terrified–figure, rendered human through the best performance of Vincent Gallo’s career. (He deservedly won the Best Actor prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival when the film premiered last fall.)

Essential Killing is a taut thriller, deliberately made in a minimalist manner. The dialogue heard in the film is mostly delivered off-camera, spoken by pilots or drivers communicating by cell phones or walkie-talkies. The only sympathetic character the fugitive meets is a mute woman, who gives him sustenance–but no words.

The director and co-writer of Essential Killing is Jerzy Skolimowski, a veteran Polish filmmaker and contemporary of Roman Polanski. An actor and painter, the multi-talented writer-director has been winning awards at top festivals including Cannes since the 1960s. Yet he didn’t direct a film for nearly two decades–from 1991 to 2008—and only recently garnered his best notices as an actor for his performance as Naomi Watts’ tough-as-nails uncle in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.

It’s great to see the 72 year-old back at his best in this film, which offers insight and a measure of sympathy into the complex and difficult soul of a man that many in the West would like to label simply as a terrorist.

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