For a film such as Essential Killing to succeed we need to believe completely in the central character and to believe that he is capable of committing the acts the story demands of him. Fortunately, Vincent Gallo is an actor who possesses such a natural intensity and unpredictability, we have no problem accepting the sight of him jumping feet-first into a freezing lake, eating a live fish, killing a man with a chainsaw or forcing a woman to...well, I think I'll let you discover that particular highlight for yourself. Behind his long hair and thick beard, Gallo's eyes are ablaze with fear, confusion and vulnerability, and one look at them tells us everything we need to know about this man's desperate desire to survive.
Gallo plays a Taliban insurgent in Afghanistan who finds himself being pursued by American troops. After being chased through a network of caves, he manages to kill three of his enemies with a rocket launcher before the explosion from a missile that lands nearby leaves him dazed and deafened. He is arrested and carted off to a US camp for interrogation, but he tells his captors nothing. Their questions and threats are drowned out by the incessant ringing the blast left in his ears, and he remains stoically silent even after he is waterboarded. Gallo doesn't utter a word throughout Essential Killing, never even revealing his name (although some credits listings name him as Mohammed) and letting his actions speak for him. It is a performance of remarkable conviction and physicality, and the driving force behind this peculiar thriller.
The other distinctive artist at work here is Jerzy Skolimowski, who has directed Essential Killing from a (presumably very short) script he wrote with Ewa Piaskowska. The film hinges on a few key plot details, with one of them being the accident that allows Gallo to escape from the van transporting him to a prison camp. He kills some US soldiers and flees into the snow-covered trees, with his American pursuers – armed with rifles, helicopters and dogs – on his tail. Essential Killing is chiefly concerned with the basics of survival and what lengths a man will go to in order to prolong his life, even if a bleak end seems increasingly inevitable. Skolimowski's direction is brilliantly direct, forcing his story forward at a gripping, relentless pace, and pushing his protagonist through ever more gruelling encounters. We see him almost freeze to death as he plunges into icy waters and trudges through the snow, we see him fall victim to a bear trap, get chased down by dogs, scavenge for food and shelter, and cling onto his life by his fingernails.
What's interesting about Essential Killing is how little influence this character's status as a (presumed) Taliban terrorist has on the story. While we are given glimpses of his faith at work, these become less important as the film progresses. We come to see him as a man, just a man, who is reduced alternately to the status of an animal and an infant at various points in his adventure by the circumstances his finds himself in. Although it initially opens as another exploration of the moral complexities of the war on terror, this is not a political film from Skolimowski, but a deeply humanistic one.
It is also an astonishingly vivid experience, with Adam Sikora's luminous cinematography superbly capturing the intimidating expanse of the stark desert and snowy mountain peaks that Gallo runs for his life through, and Skolimowski creating numerous extraordinary images, notably the one that closes the movie on a haunting note. This is a sensational piece of filmmaking, rich in its visual storytelling and fascinating in its exploration of what it means to be human when we are pushed to the very extremes of behaviour. In less than 90 minutes, Skolimowski has crafted the action movie of the year, and a film that lingers in the memory long after its incredible final shot has faded away. It is, in other words, essential viewing.