Still courtesy of TIFF.
Essential Killing has been billed as Jerzy Skolimowski’s exercise in “pure cinema.” But a more fitting billing would be “Jerzy Skolimowski’s exercise in pure cinema in which Vincent Gallo kills a lot of stuff.” Gallo plays an Afghan militant, captured by the U.S. military and deported to a secret prison facility in a frostbitten Eastern European nation (likely Poland, Skolimowski’s own backyard). After an accident on the road, he escapes and is forced to fend off the land in any way he can.
By and large, the characters in Essential Killing are nameless, and Gallo’s casting initially suggests that his character is in fact an American enemy combatant (the credits reveal his character’s name to be Mohammad, which undermines this reading slightly). But it’s not a film about character, or plotting, or grand political critiques lobbed at U.S. foreign policy. Our sympathies towards Gallo’s Taliban fighter shift constantly. At first we seem him firing a rocket, largely unprovoked, at U.S. soldiers poking around the entrance to a cave. Then we see him hunted down, rendered nearly deaf, and water-boarded. Then we watch him survive eating raw fish in the wilderness. But also by assaulting a nursing mother and imposing himself upon her teat. He’s not some allegorical prop or John Walker Lindh proxy. He’s a man thrust into exceptional circumstances, an incidentally politicized Survivorman.
Gallo offers an astounding, wordless performance. Countless arrangements of pain, confusion, and mania flash across his eyes; his body becomes a well-worked instrument of feral endurance. Without the strength of this performance, Essential Killing would be little more than an endurance test. It’s by no means essential viewing, but if you want to see what a political thriller looks like without all the politics and talking, well, what other option have you got?
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