“At a retrospective of my work in London twenty years ago I introduced The Adventures of Gerard as my worst film,” noted the wry Jerzy Skolimowski before Wednesday’s screening of Essential Killing (2010). “Today I’d like to say something different: Thank you for coming to see my best film.” Well, whether you agree with Skolimowski’s assessment or not, it’s certainly true that Essential Killing really is something to see, a brilliantly sustained piece of work that grips and engages from beginning to end. The film is Skolimowski’s spin on a Hollywood staple: the prison-break, man-on-the-run movie. The director’s daring, though, lies in his choice of man. Our central figure of empathy and identification is a Taliban fighter (Vincent Gallo), who’s captured and tortured by American troops, before escaping and fleeing across the bleak, snowy terrain of an unnamed country. (Which seems - quel surprise! - to be Poland.) But, the opening scenes of the film notwithstanding, politics isn't Skolimowski’s primary concern in Essential Killing. Rather, the focus is simply upon the protagonist’s primal drive to survive. The film tracks its hero as he dodges human and canine pursuers, nibbles on berries and tree bark, sucks a woman’s breast milk, and has to kill - and kill again.
It’s a strange, haunting journey, to be sure. Suggestive at times of an existential version of The Fugitive (1993), the movie ultimately takes on the quality of an ancient folk ballad (its indelible final image seems straight out of “Bonnie George Campbell”), with the intoxicating mixture of clarity and mystery those texts can have. Reuniting with some of his collaborators from the excellent Four Nights with Anna (2008), Skolimowski again achieves a mastery of mood and atmosphere, tone and pace. He seems in full control throughout, and the camera work - from tight close-ups through point-of-view shots to swooping pans - is exemplary. Gallo’s wordless performance (which won him the Best Actor prize at Venice) is remarkable too; he constructs the character through looks, gestures, and especially sounds, a remarkable collection of gasps, grunts and yelps. Elliptical flashbacks fill in bits of the protagonist's history, while his encounter with a sympathetic mute woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) is the movie’s (late-arriving) grace note. Essential viewing.