While reviewing Duncan Jones’s Source Code, I was reminded that I ought to review Essential Killing, not because they are alike in any fundamental way, but because of the very different approaches they take to the concept of a lone man under a mortal time pressure. While Source Code puts its hero through a frenzied series of tasks, forcing him to uncover, avert, develop and create his own plot, Essential Killing sees Vincent Gallo in a perpetual flight towards the next glimmer of hope, with little hint of a narrative to guide him or give him purpose. The former grants the power of narrative authority to its protagonist, while the latter follows its lead actor with a blank stare, waiting for him to run out of fuel.
The set-up is simple. Mohammed (Vincent Gallo) finds himself cornered in a desert that may be Afghanistan, but is nevertheless an agglomerated depiction of a Western, collectively vague impression of a barren Middle Eastern environment, with an equally sketchy vision of the conflict that is underway – it Mohammed fighting for the Taliban? Is he a civilian who has somehow found himself cut off in a cave with only a rocket launcher, that most blunt and cartoonish of all handheld weapons? We are never given the details, but we can see that he is desperate, terrified, not politically or religiously zealous, just out of his depth. When his hand is forced, he blows up three Americans to avoid discovery, but is subsequently apprehended and rendered to another unspecified location (not knowing where the hell you are is a key component of this film’s structure). He is waterboarded, beaten, and moved to another secret location. By chance, while in transit he gets an opportunity to escape and takes it, fleeing into a snow-covered forest in an unspecified Eastern European location. From this point on, the film follows his urgent flight and his fight to survive against any and all threats. We learn almost nothing about who he is (there are some flashbacks, maybe even imaginary hallucinations, of a calm home life, of a beautiful woman waiting for him); all the plot fat has been trimmed away to leave only the lean musculature of the basics – the film is less concerned with why this man must run for his life, or the ethics of what he does to ensure his own survival at the expense of others, than it is with the sense of what it feels like to be hunted, what it does to your lungs, your skin, your fingertips, your facial hair.
The triumph of the film is in that tactile approach to the action genre. So many action films are made possible by their active denial, paradoxically, of physical pain and effort. Bodies are choreographed and shot to appear weightless, co-ordinated, graceful and prepared. In Essential Killing, Mohammed is always handicapped by an injury, by deep snow, by terrible fatigue, despair or confusion. Killing is difficult, messy, with limbs flailing, bodies strained. Looking for safety, he finds only harsh, lacerating surfaces – ice, broken glass, frostbite, bear-traps. His body shakes and shivers, his knees give way, he bleeds, shudders and sobs. In his efforts to stay alive, he steals, kills and hides, and, in a scene that will divide audiences as it spills over into wilful oddity, his desperation reaches a level whereby he forces (at gunpoint) a breast-feeding woman to nurse him. This will either seem needlessly perverse, bluntly symbolic, or perhaps reminiscent of the poignant ending of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. None of his other encounters are so laden with Freudian imagery, but they are often violent, pathetic and shocking. We don’t know where Mohammed is going, or what he’s trying to reach. He probably doesn’t know either. He is just driven from one place to the next, hoping each will provide brief refuge. By the end, he has encountered something of a sympathetic counterpart in Emmanuelle Seigner, who is as remote and mute as he is, but is at least stationary. Like the unwilling breastfeeder, Seigner is deployed in a brazenly sentimental manner, as a rare source of softness, comfort and sanctuary for Mohammed. Everywhere else he has been, he has found only male agression and violence, and has reciprocated accordingly.
Director Jerzy Skolimowski seems to enjoy batting audience sympathies back and forth like a shuttlecock. Mohammed moves back and forth between victim and attacker; some of his killings seem more “essential”, more defensive than others; there are hints at a bigger thematic picture, as when, in a flashback, we see a market trader wrapping a gift in a newspaper reporting the 9/11 attacks, or when Mohammed spends a night sleeping in a manger. Are we being teased with these prompts and symbols? The film certainly doesn’t make it easy to draw conclusions or make decisions about the causes and consequences of the events we witness, but it does push you for an immediate emotional reaction to the short-term effects of displacement and conflict – we like to think of war as strategy, as politics, as maps, satellite photographs and laser-guided, heat-seeking precision, but Essential Killing serves as a reminder that, for the people swept up in it, war is a chaos of slipshod, vicious, short-term survival mechanisms.
Let’s not imagine that this film is politically neutral. It might give off the signals of disinterest by shutting out the broader debates about the merits of the ‘War on Terror’ (I cringe just at the typing of such an inane phrase, and the mental image it conjures of hand-grenades lobbed in the direction of abstract nouns), but the very act of dropping the audience into the sensorium of a character who is ubiquitously presented as either a ranting religious fundamentalist mouthpiece or a meek and noble scholar is an inherently provocative one; while we might expect the film to show Mohammed transcending stereotypes by becoming a virtuous, self-sacrificing victim, we are instead asked to align ourselves closely with the strenuous physicality of a figure usually appearing to us as an archetypal phantom. The casting of Vincent Gallo is also worthy of comment. He is not of Middle Eastern descent. He was born in Buffalo, New York, to Sicilian parents. Is this a case of “racebending“, whereby ethnic specificities are denied in favour of casting an actor more palatable to a wide audience? Or is it another provocation? Gallo gives a remarkably believable, exhausting performance, apparently without guile, sarcasm or irony, and the wordless role means we don’t have to listen to any of the teasing, nasty, ultra-conservative toss that often tumbles from his lips in interviews, in which he is either playing the role of a bristling, narcissistic artist, or simply being a deeply difficult person. Gallo is not a Hollywood liberal who would align himself with a cozy cause to enrich his political credibility amongst his peers. Imagine this film with George Clooney in the lead. No doubt he could pull off the hunted look, and he would enjoy the complete rejection of vanity that the role requires, but his political sympathies would seep into our interpretation of what it means. Gallo is always already a riveting and divisive presence, always fascinating, never comforting, predictable or immediately sympathetic. This is a film that asks you to suspend your usual instincts to sympathise, and puts you in the place of a man who doesn’t have the luxury of hiding behind ideology or entrenched opinions: he can’t pause to ask whether his actions are proper when he knows all the time that when he is caught, nobody will try to understand him, or try to identify with him, or ask why he did what he did.