director Jerzy Skolimowski
Essential Killing, a Polish “political thriller”, isn’t a film for those who like their narratives and character definitions clearly delineated. It’s a film in which the main character never speaks a word, so outside of some impressionistic flashbacks, his story, while given some subjectivity, is hardly spelled out and isn’t entirely knowable.
The film opens with a couple of Americans in some unspecified desert location, scoping about with one American soldier and being tracked by a military helicopter. What they are doing, looking for something, isn’t really clear, but what they find, a bearded, barefoot, apparently Islamic man, panicking in a crevasse, who winds up ambushing them and blowing them away. He’s then bombed from above and captured by the Americans.
Deafened by the bombing, he doesn’t respond to interrogation or torture and is shipped off to a wintry Polish countryside where the Americans have a prison. When his transfer vehicle crashes, he escapes into the wild, but not before killing a couple more soldiers, stealing their clothes and vehicle. The rest of the film, he’s on the run from the American troops, like some contemporary Jack London figure, eating bark off trees, killing, eating, surviving.
That this fighter is played by American Vincent Gallo and that he never speaks, we don’t really know who he is or why he does what he does. Is he a trained killer? Is he a native to the unnamed Islamic country? Is he a fighter or just frightened and surviving like an animal? Is he potentially like John Walker Lindh, the “Marin Taliban”, a transplant? He manages to not be overly daunted by the snow and seems to have some survival skills.
The levels of sympathy that he could evoke vary with his killings. It’s never clear if he’s acting entirely out of fear or if he has some sense of what he’s doing. His palpable terror could go either way. And the ending is equally open-ended.
For me, open-endedness is not an decisive problem. It does make it hard to empathize, to know where to invest one’s emotional connection, which is such inherent characteristic of narrative cinema. The film, as adventure and drama, is effective but not enthralling. How much of this is intentional, I don’t know. In those “man versus nature” types of thrillers, generally the audience is called upon to root for the human, particularly in a case where he is hunted by an army.
It’s interesting. Perhaps more theoretically than really. We don’t know how “essential” his killing really is. I don’t know how essential this film is. It’s not bad.