Review: ‘Essential Killing’

"Of course, the title is being used ironically, and, predictably, the symbolism is a little too obvious for its own good."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Jerzy Skolimowski isn't exactly a household name, but fans of Roman Polanski know him as the screenwriter for Knife in the Water, a positively and wickedly toxic movie about couples who hate each other, their various casual infidelities, and equally casual murder. Skolimowski has also directed a number of films in his native Poland, although few of them are recognizable hits here in the States (hands up, anyone who has seen Deep End. How about King, Queen, Knave. Yeah, not so many). The man also famously took a hiatus from filmmaking, and between 1991 and 2008, stayed far afield of the film industry, choosing instead to work on his paintings. He returned to films with Four Nights with Anna, a minor hit at Cannes. He has now brought us Essential Killing, which is, I think, his attempt at a political statement on the various wars in the Middle East, but plays more like a harrowing, mythic travelogue about a whimpering, silent martyr.

I have to admit, I had trouble buying the themes of martyrdom. Our lead character, named, obviously enough, Mohammed, spends most of them film suffering starvation, harsh weather, bullying, more starvation, some horrible internal maladies that couse him to vomit blood, and then, in a turnaround, what appears to legitimate ascension. Despite some misty dream sequences, depicting our hero getting misinterpreted religious screeds from an unseen voice (but which are clearly being dictated by an extremist calling for violence), we know nothing about Mohammed, his past, his reasons for doing what he does, or even his destination as he wanders, rather aimlessly, across the frozen Polish countryside. As a result, the film itself feels as aimless as its hero, and is only colored by the politico-baiting of the title, which implies that all the deaths are required to advance the glory of Allah, but they are really just clumsy attempts at self-defense. Of course, the title is being used ironically, and, predictably, the symbolism is a little too obvious for its own good.

The film starts with our antihero in the desert of Afghanistan, stalking two foul-mouthed American reporters, and their cautious military escort. He explodes the trio with a rocket launcher, and runs into the desert, where he is nearly gunned down, and easily captured by an American helicopter. He is deafened in the explosion, and, hence, will not speak throughout the length of the film. Indeed, none of the dialogue is pertinent to the film's actions, and it's nearly a silent drama. Mohammed is taken to a military base where he is water-boarded first, and questioned later. He manages to escape the base, and finds himself lost in the wintry tundra of rural Poland, where he is constantly one step ahead of his pursuing captors, and forced to scavenge for food. Occasionally he manages to find some berries, although he is often reduced to eating bark or stealing fish or, in the film's most extreme scene, to hold a nursing mother at gunpoint while he suckles at her breast. The ending is abrupt, unclear and noncommittal.

Mohammed is played by Vincent Gallo, who is an expert at playing angry, embittered, yet unappealingly pathetic characters. And while Gallo is game enough to actually eat bark on camera, and go through physical tortures usually reserved for the actors on the set of a Herzog movie, I still had trouble seeing past some of Gallo's more notorious off-screen antics. This is the man, if you recall, who is notoriously offering himself as an escort for any lady willing to pay the $50,000 price tag. If you want to be inseminated, it's only a cool million. Whenever I see Gallo being earnest, it strikes me as a whiny way of producing negative attention. He's wiry, intense, and a good performer, but also kind of maniac. His mania can serve his performances on occasion (I'm fond of Buffalo '66, and his performance in Coppola's Tetro), but in Essential Killing only keeps the character off balance.

For all of the chewy philosophical ground the film ambiguously covers, it is undeniably gorgeous, shot by Adam Sikora like a loving nature documentary, where every icicle has life, every show-covered fields is textured, and every rushing brook seems like a present character. Despite the harrowing experiences of Mohammed, he does seem to be lost in a glittering winter paradise that is not as forbidding or as destructive as the jungles of, say, Aguirre: The Wrath of God. For a few brief moments of the film, you are able to push aside Gallo's wacky antics and Skolmiowski's unclear polemics, and just enjoy the blissful cold air of the beautiful Polish countryside. For those moments, Essential Killing becomes something meditative.