Essential Killing

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson 
Ratings (out of five): ***

Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing placed on Cahiers du Cinema's ten best list for 2011, a not-too-shabby achievement. It says a great deal for the Polish-born director Skolimowski, who has been a favorite of that magazine for generations. But it also says something about the critics, who were given two big themes to think about: the primal theme of man-versus-nature, and the more newsworthy theme of Middle Eastern terrorists.

The American actor Vincent Gallo plays a "sand jockey," a bearded terrorist in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. He single-handedly attacks some Americans and is quickly captured. He's treated mercilessly, tortured and screamed at, and all of it made worse by the ringing in his ears caused by the detonation of an American missile.

While being transported via truck through an equally unnamed snow-covered country, the truck overturns and the terrorist escapes. He then spends about 80 percent of this lean, 84-minute movie traveling through the woods, trying to escape the soldiers and their dogs, and trying not to freeze or starve. To this end, he kills several men and steals their clothes and boots. He eats bugs and tries to eat bark. He even attacks a lactating woman and steals some of her breast milk. He is eventually taken in by a kindly, beautiful female farmer (Emmanuelle Seigner, second-billed, but appearing for less than 20 minutes).


Essentially, he turns into a beast, operating by hunger and will alone. It's a very old theme that seems timely considering the recent theatrical release of The Grey. That popcorn/pulp film managed to be refreshing by staging the battle on the men's terms. Those men refused to lose their dignity or rational thinking. By comparison, Skolimowski's theme feels a bit routine.

What is striking about it, of course, is the way that the filmmaker manages to garner sympathy for an essential villain; is there any more hated figure to an American audience than an Arab terrorist? Yet once he begins fighting for his life, he's no longer a political figure or a villain, merely human being. It's here that Skolimowski's film really succeeds. In addition, he tells the story almost entirely absent of dialogue, save for the chattering of Americans during the film's first reel. Neither Gallo nor Seigner speak a word. (Take that, The Artist.)


Skolimowski is still relatively unknown in this country. His biggest credit is as a screenwriter on Roman Polanski's striking debut feature Knife in the Water(1962). The Cahiers crowd knows about Walkover (1965) and Barrier (1966). His 1970 movie Deep End briefly became a cult classic here in the U.S., and film critic Gene Siskel championed Moonlighting (1982) as one of the best pictures of the decade. Only that last has ever been released on video in the United States, and only fairly recently. (Skolimowski is perhaps more familiar as an actor, with roles in White Nights, Mars Attacks!, Before Night Falls, and Eastern Promises.)

Yet even with that long and varied career, Essential Killing still feels audacious and tough, like a young man's film. Even though it takes on an old theme, it deserves some consideration for its new energy and ideas. New Video distributed the DVD, which includes a short (4 1/2-minute) interview with the director.

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