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by Eric Kohn
September 14, 2010 3:11 AM
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Toronto Review | Afghan on the Lam: "Essential Killing"

A scene from Jerzy Skolimowski's "Essential Killing." [Photo courtesy of TIFF]

So little happens in Jerzy Skolimowski's "Essential Killing" that it barely exists as a movie. Instead, the story of an escaped Taliban fighter (Vincent Gallo) wandering through the forests of Europe meanders along as a succession of scenes. At times engrossing and not without palpable suspense, it nonetheless amounts to a provocative doodle.

Skolimowski's typically patient approach goes to an extreme with this virtually wordless, low key chronicle of a man on the lam. He's hardly a figure of innocence: In an opening scene, the character kills a few American troops with his grenade launcher before landing himself in captivity, making it clear that he has blood on his hands. There will be more of it -- when an army transport unit crashes, he suddenly breaks free, making a series of split-second decisions to kill the people he encounters as he continues on his way.

By sticking with the fugitive from the first scene until the last, "Essential Killing" plays with viewer allegiances in a manner similar to the ambiguous nature of Angelina Jolie's double-agent in Philip Noyce's recent "Salt." Both movies demonstrate the potential for turning any victim into a figure of sympathy. Skolimowski inhabits the prisoner's point of view (literally, at times, with a first-person camera angle) so that his situation transcends context.

As a result, the weaker moments come from occasional lapses in this approach, when the director cuts away to flashbacks of the man's spiritual training to underscore his internal conflict with committing murder. The struggle is clear enough in Gallo's face. The actor, whose performance landed him an award at the Venice Film Festival, shows sufficient -- but limited -- range. His expression reads frightened, astonished and always on the verge of giving up. The central prop in this one-trick pony of a narrative, he's still effective for as far as that momentum can take him.

Most of the dialogue in "Essential Killing" is background diagetic stuff -- army men barking orders in blunt, poorly delivered lines. Fortunately, it's secondary to the engaging visual motif of Gallo in survival mode. As time goes on, he eats bugs, tree bark and (in a scene destined for lasting notoriety) nurses milk from a woman's breast while smothering her. At that point, the movie goes from being thoughtful to outright ludicrous, but it quickly retreats to the quieter approach in its final scene.

Stripped down to a high-concept experiment, the movie leaves much to be desired. The fighter's specific ideological allegiances are rendered irrelevant by the simplicity of the plot, minimizing the takeaway. "Essential Killing" moves along with a solid pace; its drawbacks lie not with any lack of coherence, but rather the lingering sense that this ostensibly topical drama exists out of time when it should embrace its built-in immediacy.

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9 Comments

  • The Educator | March 4, 2011 11:08 AMReply

    Half witted people with little knowledge about Taliban must know that most of them are Pathans. Pathans are pale skinned and have the same complexion as any of you dumb Caucasians. If you read a bit of history they are Aryans by race. So a lot of them have blond hair and blue eyes. Kindly, watch the movie for what it is and criticize it on proper technical points instead of making dumb remarks.

  • TonyNickel | November 5, 2010 9:41 AMReply

    Re: swiebertja: Yes Yes Yes. As an American seeing this film in Poland, I was moved by the willingness of skolomowski and gallo to meditate on what situation such wars have come to in the vast, largely silent atmosphere of the polish woods. A brilliant film that trusts the audience to participate in the futile monotony of gallo's final struggle. This of you who don't get it, enjoy Salt.

  • swiebertje | September 16, 2010 9:30 AMReply

    Dunno, guess we saw a different movie. The strenght, not the weakness, of this movie is that it exists out of time and doesn't embrace its built-in immediacy. To many bloody American Indies nowadays wear their messages too obviously on their sleeves. (Which is what makes 'em so boring, and why nobody watches American Indies in Europe nowadays)

  • joneses | September 16, 2010 8:25 AMReply

    Strange... I've got to see this for myself as I cant reconcile the reviews; this one saying that so little happens while the Cineuropa review starts with "there's not a moment of respite" and Time Out London says similar. Things can be subjective but hardly sounds like people watched the same movie.

  • notlikely | September 16, 2010 5:49 AMReply

    Uh yeah what I'm commenting on his the color of his skin; there's no way I would think he's from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Maybe if he got a tan? Or if there's an italian sect of muslim radicals, but that's not likely. So there's no ambiguity in this movie.

  • gpor | September 14, 2010 9:55 AMReply

    @not likely: Skolimowski talked about exactly this at one of the press conferences in Venice saying he wanted it to be deliberately ambiguous in that he might be Afghani or could have been American ala John Walker Lindh. Just as it is not clear if he was waiting in ambush or was just a cornered local defending himself. All in all I found him surprisingly good in the role and was a bit skeptical beforehand.
    One line could always be dubbed.

  • notlikely | September 14, 2010 9:20 AMReply

    Sorry but I don't think he's believable as "taliban". He's too pale and the reason he doesn't speak in the movie is his american accent would shine through. A beard doesn't make someone look "ethnic."

  • gpor | September 14, 2010 8:11 AMReply

    So little happens? Seemed engaging, well paced and tense to me though I kind of expected more from the end somehow but even that was not bad. It looks great and the images linger. I do agree that the flashbacks did not really add much. Still, I thought Gallo really put it over and all the more being sans dialog. I don't see his Venice win as a joke at all.
    Re: worldfest's comments: while some of the nepotism charges about Tarantino's choices may have substance, I don't see how this applies to Gallo's win given Gallo has called Tarantino "an asshole" publicly as well as "just a collage artist" so, if anything, it would look to make a counterargument in Tarantino's favor. I'm not aware of any friendships between Tarantino and Gallo or Skolimowski.

  • worldfest | September 14, 2010 7:04 AMReply

    ...and this earned Vincent Gallo the BEST ACTOR at the Venice Film Festival! Brilliant! Seems like the jury president gave all his dear friends major awards there, including Ms. Coppola for her "epic" effort... Mr. Tarantino should be ashamed, but he knows no shame... what a joke! Toronto continues to be the most important film festival in North America, far outrunning Sundance, which has become nothing but a sneak preview venue for the major studios (and a great ski holiday)! Special credit and Kudo's to Dusty Kohl, the Founder of Toronto Intl Film Festival and a good friend. We miss Dusty! He always came to our festival, WorldFest-Houston ... info at worldfest.org ... Come and See!