Two events in the life of Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski inspired the survival adventure Essential Killing: Rumors of the airfield near his home functioning as a transport hub for Middle East prisoners, and an incident in which his car nearly toppled down a snowy embankment. From the latter, Skolimowski imagined an accident that led to the escape of a Taliban prisoner in a forbidding Eastern European forest. On the former subject, he treads all too carefully, initially lifting the politically charged premise of black-ops waterboarding, then casting it aside in favor of a more basic, generalized tale of one man’s ferocious battle to stay alive. It’s riveting regardless, but Essential Killing goes so far out of its way to avoid political commentary that the commentary that remains is slim, reduced to a familiar, though occasionally striking, statement on man’s animal nature.
In a wordless performance that takes advantage of his striking face—not to mention his beard-growing ability—Vincent Gallo stars as a Taliban fighter who happens to get the drop on three American operatives in an unspecified Middle Eastern locale. After wiping them out with a rocket launcher, Gallo quickly gets scooped up and transferred to a secret detention center in Eastern Europe, but he’s freed again after a transport vehicle crashes in the snow. So begins his directionless trek into the wilderness, as he’s chased by helicopters, dogs, and army men in white flak jackets, improvising escape routes and hobbling away from obstacles like a bear trap that snares his right boot, or a plunge into an icy lake. In the meantime, he’s haunted by memories of home and hearth—some fueled by desire, others by poison-berry hallucinations. And he’s desperate for sustenance of any kind—lactating Polish women are hereby advised to breastfeed indoors.
As the chase commences, Skolimowski hits on a strong metaphor for America’s military misadventures in the Middle East: This one poor Taliban fighter, armed only with a knife, can face an overwhelming force with limitless resources and still survive. But after he leaves his pursuers in the rear-view, Essential Killing is only good when it’s expressive. On that front, Skolimowski sometimes layers the soundtrack with experimental discord and frames some beautiful shots of Gallo treading through virgin landscape, but the artful touches aren’t sustained. Without them, a potentially radical film starts to look ordinary.
Key features: A disposable interview with Skolimowski, running under five minutes, and presented by American Express, which apparently wasn’t willing to pay for more time.