Essential Killing

Essential Killing is a taut, slow, and contemplative war film; heavy on introspection, light on action, it is a film rewarding for a lot things. Yet, it leaves you with a hollow feeling. Despite all the effort evident on its surface, it fails both as an action film and an important drama with serious things to say about war, innocence/guilt, and survivial.

Vincent Gallo is Muhammed - the taliban warrior taken as prisoner by the American military and taken to an interrogation camp in rural, icy Poland, where he is waterboarded for information. During a transfer, the van carrying Muhammed careens off the road. In the melee, Muhammed manages to escape into dense woodlands, with soldiers in pursuit.

In this forced exodus for survival, Muhammed encounters various local people, who seem to be unaware of the miliatry operations taking place nearby. In one admittedly brilliant scene, the famished Muhammed attacks a woman breastfeeding her baby. If you were one of those who were disappointed that the ending of The Grapes of Wrath the book should have been kept in the film version, then here is your reward - 70 years on.

Yet, that seems to be the only thing going for it. The other encounters with locals often end in bloody struggle, but it all feels very empty. Muhammed’s chances of survival are slim - even if he survives his pursuers and the frigid cold, how can he survive in this world that is literally and figuratively miles away from his home?

The major downfall of the film is not this futility, but that Muhammed is an outline of a character - there is nothing beneath the archetype of a man that is trying to survive against all odds. There are a couple of dreamy flashback scenes, where we see his wife and baby. But these only act as pseudo-mirages - they don’t even convey a false reality, a yearning for a time gone by, but there to fail a purpose. Who is Muhammed? Should we take him only as the guerrilla that killed the three soldiers with an bazooka in the beginning of the film? It’s not that he needs to be “humanised” to garner empathy - he needs to be outlined as somebody, not something.

Not all is doom and gloom, though. Credit should go to Vincent Gallo, who is brilliant as the mute protagonist. He finishes the film without uttering a single word. His only contribution to the soundtrack are his incessant breathing and groans of pain. A truly great performance. Emmanuelle Segnier (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) has a little silent cameo as well, but that scene only seems to serve the purpose to feature her name in the credits.

Jerzy Skolimowsky’s direction falls short of being anything special and the script he co-wrote with Ewa Piaskowska has been shed too many interesting things.

Essential Killing could have been an exceptional film, one of the greats. It is a looker, but despite the beauty on the screen and Gallo’s fantastic performance, it is nothing but an empty shell.