Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. Starring Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner Club, IFI, Dublin, 84 min
THREE WESTERN soldiers stop for a smoke in an unnamed Middle Eastern territory. Inside a nearby cave, an unnamed Islamic man (Vincent Gallo) momentarily hesitates. A whirlwind sequence reveals his capture, torture and transportation to an unnamed Slavic destination. His extraordinary rendition ends with a traffic accident and an improbable escape.
That’s when his struggle begins.
The latest film from cult Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, a co-production between Ireland, Poland, Norway and Hungary, is emblematic of the new European vogue for pure cinema. Essential Killing’s virtually wordless screenplay and visceral emphasis serves a practical purpose. The pointedly borderless, carefully unspecific project has travelled around far-flung territories and festivals. Last September, Quentin Tarantino’s jury at Venice even changed the rules of the competition to hand over both the Special Jury Prize and Best Actor to Skolimowski and Gallo, respectively.
We can see why they ripped up the rulebook. At 48, Gallo still wears the sneering intensity of a young Taqwacore dissident. It would not be a Vincent Gallo performance without earthy, primal behaviours, and running barefoot across the snow at temperatures of -30 Celsius on an inhospitable shoot seems to have provided the actor with plenty of impetus and inspiration.
At its best, Essential Killingis Gallo in the moment, a bleeding, shivering animal, engaging in whatever Extreme Eating is required to survive. At his best, the actor finds something common to humanity in the bestial underneath.
Flashbacks (or perhaps fantastic flash-forwards) to scenes of pearly mosques and billowing hijabs are rather less successful. The religious-themed inserts are incongruous in a project that so studiously sidesteps political markers and prove an unwanted distraction in the cinema.
We are, perhaps, supposed to think that Skolimowski is referencing Szymany Airfield, a remote Polish destination that was reportedly used by the CIA. We are almost certainly expected to contemplate a silent Western complicity.
At heart, however, Essential Killingis a running man drama. Like Apocalypto, it thrives on adrenalin and the thrill of the chase. Gallo’s tremendous central performance, though mesmerising, exists as a hypnotic binary: fight or flight.