This being a film starring Vincent Gallo, you want it to have its immortal Vincent Gallo moment, one such as you’ve never witnessed before. Leave it to veteran maverick director Jerzy Skolimowski to oblige; after a couple of desperate days on the run through frigid snowy forests, the hungry escaped prisoner played by Gallo comes upon a nursing mother on the side of a road and holds the terrified woman at gunpoint while he casts the baby aside and sucks her voluminous breast for nourishment.
That the woman then passes out and Gallo goes off to cry lends the film a moment of humanity, but the staggering weirdness of the encounter prevails in this competently crafted but repetitive, one-note pursuit picture; when a chase lacks tension and the man being hunted is an unsympathetic Taliban fighter to boot, there’s simply too much to overcome.
Skolimowski, who scored some critical points with his dark and difficult “Four Nights With Anna” two years ago, is working on a slightly bigger but equally intimate canvas in “Essential Killing.” In an unidentified forbidding land that looks like the setting of “Starship Troopers” but is undoubtedly meant to be Afghanistan, the killing of three American soldiers leads to a helicopter assault and the capture of Gallo’s bearded character. After a head-shave, some water boarding and a good beating, the wild-eyed militant is carted off to another unidentified land where he promptly escapes from his convoy truck and sets off barefooted into the wintry white mountains, his orange suit making him as conspicuous as a flamingo in Antarctica.
From here on in this straight-line 80-minute experience, it’s merely a question of how shrewd and elusive an animal Gallo can be. Hunted by a chopper, he kills, dons more normal clothes, gets his foot caught in a bear trap, cleverly throws marauding dogs of his track, survives a very long fall, dines on ants (another memorable Gallo moment), turns the tables on a chainsaw-wielding logger and finally invades the home of a vulnerable rural woman.
Set, it’s ultimately clear, in the director’s native Poland, the film attempts to win points by subverting Western antipathy for a mujahidin type by placing him in a classical survival story context. But the violent perversity of some of the man’s actions throws things off to an extent and, ultimately, Skolimowski’s bag of narrative tricks is not ample enough to fill out even the brief running time. As an exercise it holds the interest, but Gallo’s fugitive remains little more than a figure in a landscape.