Essential Killing (2010)

Essential Killing begins in Afghanistan, when a jihadi is captured and tortured by US forces after he has killed three of their soldiers; the film ends with the same insurgent having escaped during transit and subsequently endured a harsh Polish winter. What began as a specific kind of chase film ends as a survival drama that transcends its political ramifications.

Vincent Gallo plays the insurgent, nameless and wordless for the entire duration of the film. Though we have previously watched this man fire a rocket into three “enemy” soldiers, we feel a strong sense of misunderstanding in the scenes in which he is tortured for information by officers of the US military. The misunderstanding is not only literal – the insurgent has temporarily lost hearing as a result of the helicopter missile that led to his arrest – but political.

Without ever referencing it outright, Essential Killing is set against the framework of “the war on terror”, and, as it unfolds, gradually begins to undercut the specific wording of that phrase, not just in the more obvious sense of humanising its jihadi, but by drawing attention to the implications of its own title.

Indeed, after the film’s opening scene, there is no change in aesthetic or shift in tone to suggest its stakes have changed, so that we view with the same detachment two incidents separated only by time: an Afghani killing soldiers illegally occupying his country, and then the same man falling into perilously icy water and stabbing a search dog to death after it follows after him. The film blurs the point at which its killings become essential.

The film gains much from Gallo’s committed performance. Since his character has limited interaction with others, there isn't much for him to do in the conventional sense. The performance is more physical; in Norway, where some of the forest scenes were shot, it was sometimes minus 35 Celsius; you get a strong sense that in some way, the actor has endured something of an ordeal himself, especially when he's filmed eating ants.

Gallo's most intimate moment is that in which he hides at the side of an icy road, out of view of a woman who falls off her bicycle. Resting by the side of the road, she reveals a small child in her garments, to whom she proffers a breast to feed. Gallo's soldier shows only a moment of hesitation, before approaching the woman and, gun in hand, starts sucking her other breast for milk. Disturbed by an approaching car, he disappears again, before falling to his knees in the snow and crying.

As I posted for Front Row Reviews earlier this week, Gallo has just been cast in two different roles – one in Italian, the other English – in Davide Manuli’s The Legend of Kaspar Hauser; it’s good to see him involved in acting on a semi-regular basis again.

Almost as if to acknowledge its vague genre elements, the film includes bleached-out flashbacks to Afghanistan, with voice-overs reminding us that this jihadi considers himself at war in the name of Allah. These, and the few intermittent moments in the forest suggesting he is hallucinating, are the film's weakest. Its finest, in contrast, might be those early on, recalling Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982), in which Adam Sikora's camera swirls over the forest in pursuit of the fugitive to the ominous sounds of a helicopter, and those later in the film, in which the camera is more serene but no less bleak, evoking the harsh amorality of the natural world.