Essential Killing ***
Directed by: Jerzy Skolimowski.
Written by: Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska.
Starring: Vincent Gallo (Mohammed), Emmanuelle Seigner (Margaret).
Vincent Gallo is one of the great actors out there right now. That he rarely works – and always do so in strange, small movies, sometimes from the most unlikely sources, is our loss because in films like Buffalo 66 (which he also directed), Francis Ford Coppola’s strange Tetro, and yes even the infamously bad The Brown Bunny, Gallo as an actor makes choices that no other actor would make. The most daring choice he makes in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing was perhaps to even agree to do the film itself. He plays a Taliban fighter, identified on some sights as Mohammed, but if his name is mentioned in the movie, I didn’t hear it. During the course of this movie, Gallo will not utter a single line of dialogue – he grunts and cries out in pain and terror, but he doesn’t talk. Some of those he comes across do talk, but none of it is particularly meaningful – you don’t even need the subtitles for the dialogue not spoken in English, because it doesn’t matter. Essential Killing is an example of pure visual storytelling, and is a triumph for Skolimowski and Gallo.
The film opens with three American military men walking through the desert and caves of Afghanistan. We know before they do that there is a Taliban fighter (Gallo) hiding in one of those caves, with a rocket launcher waiting to strike. He does so, and takes off through the desert, but the area is covered by a helicopter, so he is quickly captured, and taken into custody. The American soldiers yell at him, although he cannot hear them because his ears are ringing from an explosion, and probably doesn’t understand English anyway. He just looks at them blankly. They take to a back room and water board him, but still, he doesn’t utter a word. He is put on a plane, and taken to Poland, presumably for more questioning, but the van he is in crashes, and he escapes. Thus begins the main thrust of the movie, which involves Gallo running through the frozen Polish landscape, pursued by his captors, and doing what he needs to do to survive.
Given that the movie is about a Taliban fighter being pursued by Americans in a foreign country, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a political film. It really isn’t. Gallo is no more or less demonized or lauded as the American army is. There are no speeches, no real talk about freedom or religion or belief or anything else for that matter. This is just a story of a man, on his own in the Polish wilderness trying to survive.
That Gallo is good enough in the film that he won the Best Actor prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival is remarkable, considering he never utters a word, and of course, that he really isn’t Arab. But Gallo convinces you that he is a Taliban fighter, and further convinces you that the pain he is going through is real. His journey through Poland is one painful episode after another, as he first must get clothing to avoid freezing to death, than evade capture by men with much more technology and knowledge of the area than he does, and even has to deal with getting his foot caught in a bear trap with his pursuers following close behind. That he survives so long is perhaps a little unbelievable, and yet each of his escapes seem at least somewhat plausible in the time they are happening. Gallo carries the movie with his physicality, and of course, the most expressive eyes of any actor currently out there. It is a masterful performance.
And it is a triumph for Skolimowski as well, who manages to make a movie with no meaningful dialogue, that is still remarkably engaging. This is pure cinema, and Skolimowski pulls it off. I’m sure there will be some who criticize the film for being a sympathetic portrait of a Taliban fighter, or simply for its name, which implies that what he does is “essential”. But for Gallo’s character in this movie, all the killing he does – whether or Americans or animals – is essential to him. He views killing as essential to his survival. We may disagree with him, but he doesn’t.