Essential Killing tells the story of Mohammed (Gallo) a middle-eastern man who, after an unfortunate and deadly encounter with a group of American contractors, is captured by American forces and taken to a Guantanamo-esque facility where he is interrogated (read: waterboarded). After this terrifying experience he is shipped to a European location where his luck changes somewhat and chance allows him to escape his captors and disappear into the icy woodland night. An unnamed band of soldiers are hot in pursuit, however, and Mohammed must flee across the harsh environs of an unknown snow covered wilderness. Mohammed, first the prey, must turn predator and confront human survival in its most brutal and basic form if he is to survive.
As far as summaries go, this one is rubbish – it is vague and lacks even the most basic detail that you would expect to find in a movie synopsis.
But these are not a editorial oversights. They are, of course, deliberate omissions by director Jerzy Skolimowski, omissions that contribute another element of confusion and mystery to the inherently unreal scenario. It’s a technique that is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Memento where the reverse narrative left the viewer, like the protagonist, very much in the dark; in Essential Killing it makes Mohammed’s disorientating, unreal experience our own. This experience is compounded by the beautiful but alienating backdrop of the European forest, where Mohammed’s mere presence seems like an absurd fantasy, and this is surely no mistake, Skolimowski’s vision in his own words is of “the forest of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale without the magic”
Gallo’s almost entirely mute performance can’t be faulted; his crazed wide eyed look of desperation as he undergoes a primal and ultimately Freudian regression is not only believable, but at times deeply disturbing. Despite this there is a niggling feeling that he has been miscast – his unmistakably Roman profile and olive skin are distinctly Mediterranean, and it’s unlikely that even the metropolitan police would mistake Gallo for a Taleban insurgent. This lack of a strong visual identification is unhelpfully exaggerated by the aforementioned deliberate lack of detail; while this clever device contributes to the unreal aesthetic of the film, without key signifiers such as location, costume and speech we are left with only dreamlike flashbacks of a desert homeland to remind us of the identity of the man being pursued.
These flashbacks serve as a narrow thread that link back to the highly politicised opening scenes, and their inclusion would suggest that this is more than just a survival thriller; that the brief but harrowing scenes of capture and interrogation aren’t just a very elaborate way to set up a pursuit scenario and that there is a deeper significance to the plot, as thin as it may be. Or is there? Skolimowski says that the story depicts “a struggle for survival”, and adds confusingly that it is “neither political nor apolitical”. What I can only imagine he means by this is in the case of the ‘war on terror’ the issue of survival is a more fundamental than any political or ideological considerations. Reducing the war on terror to an issue of survival seems like a gross simplification. What the conflict demonstrates if anything is the power of ideology – that ideology motivates people, often in spite of their most basic instincts – ignoring ideological imperatives of a deeply ideological conflict seems like a sure fire way to say nothing at all.
Essential Killing is wonderfully vivid, often disturbing and truly tense thriller which is propped up by outstanding lead performance from Gallo. But conceptually it fails to convincingly connect its two main themes, resulting in either a politically bloated thriller, or a confusing attempt to eschew the significance of ideological to the ‘war on terror’. You choose.