Friday 29 October 2010

Review: Essential Killing (2010) @ the London Film Festival

“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.


  1. Thank you for a compelling and intriguing review. I am even more enthusiastic to see it. Very interested to see these Hollywood staples filtered through the likes of Skolimowski and Gallo. I can't help but think it is going to leave some unsuspecting viewers entirely flummoxed.

  2. More than likely. I predict major cult status, though! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Link on the official site

  4. what was the music played at the end of the film and by what band

    1. im asking the same question,i really want to know.Have you found it after 2 years?

  5. yes good review

    I will def see this!
    looks better that BATTLE LOS ANGELES which I sat through today!!!

  6. It took me a long time to get to watching it, but the film seems to have been as elusive as its main character - when I wanted to see it at the cinema, it wasn't screening anymore and it's only now come out on dvd.

    I can confirm that the snowy country is indeed my native Poland and the spoken language is Polish, but that is probably less important than the fact that it's a different kind of desert on the other side of the globe. What a strange film! It reminded me throughout of Jarmusch's "Dead Man" - now I know you're not keen on him, except for "Limits of Control", but bear with me.

    The parallel for me would be that both travesty genre films which hinge on quick pace and violence, and push towards hazy allegory; both stretch the main character's death to breaking point (though Jarmusch does this much more) - the scenes with Gallo swaying unconsciously on horseback seems almost a direct reference to the scenes in which William Blake and Nobody are entering the camp. That's of course leaving aside the obvious fact that both films focus on fugitives in a barren landscape. The differences are perhaps as striking as the similarities, though; Skolimowski refuses to have his character undergo a fundamental transformation (whereas William Blake on the train and William Blake in the boat couldn't be further apart) or indeed any transformation, which in any case would be difficult to pull off given how little we know about the character. Also, while Jarmusch wears his politics on his sleeve, I don't think Skolimowski does (although one reviewer stated that "the director couldn't be clearer with his political agenda").

    Ok, but enough of Jarmusch. I also thought how he returns to some of his concerns from "Anna" - again, choosing a protagonist who is difficult to side with (much more so, in fact!), inarticulate (though for other reasons, perhaps), hunted down and humiliated in a prison setting. But where "Anna" goes for depth, "Essential Killing" seems to go for, say, breadth? The story is so stripped down that it almost demands a symbolic reading, especially given the eerie cinematography and unsettling soundtrack; in fact, it got me wondering to what extent, as a viewer, I'm responding to cues of significance, and also saying to myself "This is Skolimowski, there's got to be more to it than just a story of survival!". I love how he conveys the sense of alienation in the landscape, and how the film quickly loses its generic markers, slows down and becomes meditative and downright beautiful (especially the final scenes with Seigner!). I admit that when Gallo was first shot down from the helicopter and I was treated to the circling long shot, reminiscent of a computer game (coupled with the earlier Quake-like POV shots of Gallo with a gun) I became concerned whether I could stand that kind of aesthetic for an hour and a half.

    And then there's Gallo himself! Wow. I read a review before, which said that there's "almost no dialogue" from him, and you gotta love that 'almost'!

    Anyway, just a couple of thoughts, fresh after the viewing. I need to think on it some more. Thanks for the recommendation, anyway, because the trailer didn't really encourage me. In fact, it's a bizarre trailer; I watched it again now, in the extras on the dvd, and it's practically a linear synopsis of about 90% of the film. I've never seen a trailer of this kind.

    Rented La Refuge, too, so that's on next.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Really glad that you enjoyed the film so much. Never trust the trailer! ;) Shame you missed it on the big screen - where it looked and sounded incredible - but DVD’s the next best thing, no doubt about it. :)

    I’m sure you’re right about the Jarmusch connections. I’d need to see DEAD MAN again, though, and you’ve encouraged me to do that very thing! Spot-on with the ANNA links/differences as well. I think "problem" protagonists are a Skolimowski speciality, aren’t they?

    As for political readings, I think too many commentators have got hung up on this. (Either that, or the “breast milk” scene!) When the movie premiered in Cannes I remember the BBC getting very excited about the fact that Vincent Gallo "plays a Taliban"!! I think Skolimowski said he was initially inspired by hearing about secret military airports close to where he lives in Poland and prisoners being “rended” (is that a word; I think not?!) there. But what I like is the way Skolimowski takes that War on Terror/rendition context, grounds the film in that reality, and then ventures in to more elemental, primal terrain. So many contemporary “political” films seem so crude in their approach and I admire the way that Skolimowski avoids that. Is he having his cake and eating it? Well maybe, but ultimately I think that’s where the film’s strengths lie.

    Totally agree about the brilliantly-conveyed sense of alienation in the landscape, and the film is so skillful in its command of pace and mood and rhythm. That cinematographer is aces! And yes, Gallo is superb throughout. He’s an actor I always like to watch, anyway, but this is such a demanding role. Skolimowski told a funny anecdote about him (Gallo) saying that he wasn’t frightened of the wintry conditions, having grown up in Buffalo. “But he soon found out that Buffalo wasn’t THAT severe”!

    Thanks again. Look forward to hearing what you made of the Ozon.

  8. Anonymous - I'm reliably informed that the music on the closing credits is by Paweł Mykietyn and the core musicians he used for most of the soundtrack. Guitar is Paweł Stankiewicz, which is the main feature of the track.