Frustrated with lack of control over his work, legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski had abandoned filmmaking for 17 years, dedicating himself to painting instead, until he returned in 2008 with the intimate psychological thriller Four Nights with Anna. He has followed this up with Essential Killing, a more ambitious film in scope and theme that echoes his career-long interest in outsiders, and in the struggle of the individual against oppressive forces.
Starring Vincent Gallo as an unnamed (possibly Afghan or Iraqi) fighter, Essential Killing opens as he attacks American soldiers and is captured among barren mountains. After a brief depiction of an American-run prison, Gallo’s character is flown to an unknown northern location. He manages to escape, but barefoot and dressed only in a flimsy orange boiler suit, running in an unfamiliar snow-covered forest in the dark, he seems to have little chance of remaining free. Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Gallo, finding himself in an alien country, confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, becomes increasingly animal-like.
Despite the initial politically charged prison scenes, Skolimowski is not interested in making specific political points, but rather in presenting a universally resonant story. Although the orange boiler suits and the torture scenes of the beginning are highly recognisable, the film gives no further indications of place and time, and the identity of Gallo’s fighter is purposefully left undefined. There are memories of prayers and preaching, and a woman in a blue burqa with a baby, but nothing can be established from these fragmentary images, which, as we find out later, come not just from the past, but also from the future. As Gallo’s motivations are never elucidated, the film leads us to relate to him simply as a man, whatever he may be.
The film is virtually dialogue-free and events and emotions are conveyed almost exclusively through the images. After Gallo’s capture, he is interrogated by his American captors, but no amount of shouting via a translator can get him to answer their questions - not because he is unwilling, but simply because he can’t, for a reason the Americans have not even thought of. This is a great detail that is part of the film’s thought-provoking exploration of various forms of non-verbal communication, one of its central concerns.
Gallo gives an extraordinarily intense performance and his emotional involvement in the character keeps the audience firmly on his side as extreme circumstances force him to commit increasingly desperate and brutal acts. Poetic, savage and beautifully expressive visually, Essential Killing is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience that should not be missed.