Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Texas outlaw saga Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has us thinking back on some of our favorite on-the-lam movies.
Essential Killing (2010)
On paper, it sounds a bit like a joke: Vincent Gallo, the bohemian gadfly and vocal conservative who made The Brown Bunny, stars as a Muslim insurgent on the run from American soldiers. Yet the model/musician/filmmaker, with his sunken features and gaunt frame, turns out to be perfectly cast against type as the silent, hunted protagonist of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing. (It helps that he doesn’t say a single word; his distinctive nasal tone may have given the movie an unintentionally comedic slant.) Captured by the U.S. military after blowing away some troops in the hills of Afghanistan, a scraggly Gallo is subjected to some enhanced interrogation and flown to Poland, but escapes—like the fugitive of The Fugitive, bright jumpsuit and all—when the vehicle transporting him to a POW camp capsizes. He spends the rest of the movie scrambling across a snowy foreign landscape, dodging the infantrymen on his tail and occasionally, frantically disposing of those who get in his way (the essential killing of the title, presumably).
There’s something bracing about watching a War on Terror action movie told from the perspective of the terrorist; predating Zero Dark Thirty by two years in its depiction of torture techniques, the movie humanizes the enemy by turning him into a force of pure desperation—a beleaguered body in motion, fleeing death and imprisonment at all costs. Yet the political component is marginal; this is a survival story, plain and simple, and in the hands of Polish director Skolimowski (Moonlighting), it becomes an exercise in primal, stripped-down storytelling. As Gallo devours ants for sustenance, fends off wild dogs, and re-enacts the finale of The Grapes Of Wrath (minus the consent of the mother), the audience becomes weirdly hardwired to his emotional and physical state, feeling every painful plunge, down the side of a bank or into ice-cold water. It’s a fantastic study in forced identification—a prison-break film that immerses viewers in the hardship and headspace of the escaped.