Poland / Norway / Ireland / Hungary, 2010
Review by Glenn Heath Jr.
Posted on 11 June 2011
Source DVD Screener
Go left or right? Kill or spare a life? Run or die? These are the essential survival decisions structuring Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, an elemental escape film that dissolves politics, motives, and actions into the whispering wind of the frigid wilderness. Most of the early plot developments sending an unnamed Arab Insurgent into the wild are strangely ironic, personified by a procession of American soldiers distracted by the joys and pressures of non-military life (children, economics, marriage). It’s as if they have already mentally moved on from the battlefield, while the Insurgent is still deeply rooted in the conflict.
This odd thematic trend is consistent from the dank caves of Afghanistan to the stifling Eastern European snowscape where absurd fits of chance play a role in the Insurgent’s capture and sudden escape from American forces. It’s a sort of twisted predetermination that fragments all sense of ideology and reassurance, leaving the viewer entirely dependent on the natural rhythms of specific scenes. Ultimately, nature’s nooks and crannies, designed in shadow, snow, dirt, and moss, tether his manic singular trajectory to a place of texture. Close-ups of the Insurgent are anchored at ground level, and the occasional arterial blood spray or dripping wound often coats the rough and uneven surfaces filling the frame. Skolimowski juxtaposes the immediacy of these moments with monumental extreme long shots of valleys, mountains, and tree lines, constructing a lingering sense of the supernatural that cannot be shaken.
Skolimowksi’s films have always been about cornering psychologically fractured men, blurring their rationale, and sending them to hell. The reasons behind their continued suffering may vary: repression (Mike in Deep End), weakness (Anthony in The Shout), arrogance (Nowak in Moonlighting), and pride (Capt. Miller in The Lightship), yet the end result always succumbs to tragedy. The Insurgent at the center of Essential Killing is a perfect deconstruction of all these other men. He’s a wordless cipher, and the audience must build his personality and motives from the spare parts of disjointed flashbacks and distrusting flashforwards, incomplete bursts of imagery that challenge our preconceived notions about fundamentalism and American foreign policy. While the Insurgent might be the last in a long line of tortured souls populating the Skolimowski canon, he’s a clean slate filled in by our own instincts and ideas, a blank template for the extreme decision-making process inherent to moment-to-moment survival.
The tumultuous relationship between a character’s action and the viewer’s perspective has never been so apparent in Skolimowski’s work as it is in Essential Killing. Because the Insurgent never utters a word, relying totally on sudden actions and reactions, his experience becomes a mirror to our own nightmarish impressions of warfare, a cinematic realization of what James Dickey creates in his literary masterpiece To The White Sea. Skolimowski doesn’t have the advantage of WWII historiography, and the soldiers killed are American, not Japanese, yet the function of dissolving all outside influences in the fruitless pursuit of personal freedom remains the same. The Insurgent is not a product of his environment (be it in the desert or snow), but an organic part of it, a loosening seam in its withering fabric.
The opening moments of Essential Killing establish this warped relationship between extreme environment and expectation. Two American contractors dressed in Arab garb sweep a cavernous valley with a lone American Marine, the former pair mindlessly talking about an import/export business they plan to start after the war. This isn’t the masculine professionalism or palpating aesthetics of The Hurt Locker, but a close cousin to De Palma’s treatment of the military in Redacted. Skolimowski lingers on the ridiculousness of the contractor’s words and the silence of the Marine, all the while cutting to the panicked Insurgent’s POV as he picks up an RPG, huddles into a cavernous corner and waits. The eventual bloodshed is expected, but the Insurgent’s drastic and prolonged hesitation is not. Here, Essential Killing becomes a film about “the last second” before mortal action, where the tide turns one way or another. It’s more a series of brutal vignettes about the urgency of the present moment than a fully developed narrative.
Captured and taken into custody at an Abu Ghraib-style detention center (barking dogs, black hoods, water-boarding), the Insurgent is transported to an unnamed country marked by its extreme winter surroundings. A flock of wild pigs sends his convoy off the road, allowing him an opportunity to escape. He reacts, disappearing into the wilderness. But Skolimowski throws a wrench into the standard Fugitive scenario. Instead of pushing further into the darkness, the Insurgent hesitates and returns to give himself up, only to find an abandoned crash site and a pair of sentries listening to heavy metal in an SUV. One young solider is even talking to his wife on the phone about their soon-to-be-born twins, oblivious to his surroundings. We’re not sure if the Insurgent speaks or understands English, so when he kills both men in a matter of seconds, the magnitude of his actions takes on an unsettling ambiguity. We are never privy to the human consequences of his actions, just the barebone decisions.
As the Insurgent dodges patrols of white camouflage storm troopers and wanders further into the void, his process of survival becomes more simplified while the musical score grows more primal, with tribal horns and strings resonating from every angle. Eventually, the noises of helicopters circling above and barking dogs in the distance fade away, and his reasons for war, teased out in the aforementioned flashbacks, meld into impressionistic visions of the past that avoid easy explanation. His political or ideological motives become more opaque, useless when considering the vastness of his natural prison. Or so we think. The Insurgent has visions of what we assume to be his wife, shrouded in a turquoise burka walking through the streets of a dusty Middle Eastern marketplace. Later, the same cloth flows down a wintry stream at his feet, a visceral premonition we never fully understand. Something has happened to propel him into war, but the answers to these narrative questions are always moot. At this point, personal motives are buried under blankets of snow, frozen solid and left for someone else to interpret.
Essential Killing lives in a genre universe that would normally build toward finality, but Skolimowski only gives us an anti-climax, a cinematic gravestone in the ice. The final symbolic image of blood, hair, and skin primed together amid the calm of nature is a heightened culmination of the absurdist plot twists that have come before. That’s not to say Skolimowski isn’t deathly serious about the physical and emotional effects of this journey. We feel every wound, fall, and punch in Essential Killing, mostly because Skolimowski lingers so closely on actor Vincent Gallo’s palpating eyes during the most intense moments of violence; an explosion that sends his eardrums into a ringing frenzy, the calm moment after he stabs a dog to death, and the hilariously dark attempt to suckle the breast of a passing mother. Each is a contradictory piece of a survival guide that cannot be finished, a makeshift solution to an unsolvable puzzle. This strange dichotomy between rigorous form and elemental function is the film’s most interesting achievement, making Essential Killing more than just a series of virtuoso escapes and rescues. What was once a battle between interior panic and exterior action eventually becomes a quiet requiem for… we’re never really sure. Is it man’s dependence on individuality, lust for control, need for family, or desire for love? Is it really essential to know “what” or “why” when so much has already been lost?