Whoa, Vincent Gallo, look out for that tree! The toppling mighty oak in question is being buzzed down by a grizzled worker, and Gallo, though the only other man in the woods, happens to be in striking distance of it. No matter, it’s just one of many harebrained circumstances in which Gallo finds himself in Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest, Essential Killing, a self-consciously stripped-down action-art survival film. For his part, Gallo, with nary a line of dialogue, is put through the ringer. A fish out of water and an escaped convict tossed from his transport after a Fugitive-like hillside crash, Gallo, in addition to being nearly flattened by that tree, accidentally steps on an open bear trap, has to stab a marauding hunting dog, and eats ants and tree bark for nourishment. Trapped in the middle of nowhere and not knowing the local language, Gallo is forced to rely on his wits and animal-like fury, not to mention adeptness with hunting knives and chainsaws. Essential Killing is a one-man Lord of the Flies. Oh, and did I mention Gallo’s character is named Mohammed and he is an extradited Afghan prisoner en route to an unspecified location for imprisonment?
If I carelessly left that part out, perhaps it’s because it seems almost like an afterthought to the film, as well. As brutal as it is, Essential Killing is clearly an entertainment, and a surprisingly mindless entertainment at that. Right from the beginning, when the camera adopts Mohammed’s POV as he skulks around a cave before detonating a rocket launcher on some American troops, it’s clear we’re in Predator territory here, with a patina of political topicality laid over the thing, mostly in the first fifteen minutes or so, in which faceless American soldiers patrolling mountainous Afghanistan desert say things like “They don’t want anyone knowin’ about this mission” and “Whole fuckin’ country’s full of minimum-wage cunts, man. Fuck ’em,” and, when aiming weaponry at the locals, “Say your prayers, sandman!” It becomes increasingly clear that Gallo’s performance benefits from not having to deliver any of his own ham-fisted dialogue (ditto for Emmanuelle Seigner, enlisted to play a kindly deaf-mute—natch—who at one point dresses his wounds).
Instead he gets some simple, showily edited flashbacks to mother and baby (not unlike Djomon Hounsou’s wailing remembrances in Amistad) and religious guilt fever dreams about the crimes he’s committed (“It was not you who slew them, it was Allah!” a voice reassures). The use of Gallo in this role has been hailed in some circles as either a conscious effort to make the Other seem like one of us or a playful art-film meta trick in which we’re clearly watching a bad boy of cinephilia get waterboarded. Either one of these defenses makes the film seem specious any way you look at it; if this is simply an experiment in audience identification, it fails (Gallo is far too rarefied a figure to make this film work on multiple levels for most viewers), and if the casting is for political reasons, it’s just silly and even reeks of white-face.
Or perhaps it’s just an “efficient” and “spare” (read in this case: unimaginative) action film? Even so, the film’s brevity, which is key (eighty minutes), doesn’t allow us enough time to experience the arduousness of Gallo’s trek. We don’t feel his desperation or exhaustion, we simply bear witness to him as he shoots his enemies (including one aw-shucks American, in the back, immediately after he finds out that his wife have birth to twins via a cell phone conversation—blammo!), chainsaws strangers (in a low-angle shot in which blood spurts up on him as he screams, like Scout Taylor-Compton at the end of Rob Zombie’s Halloween), fends off snapping hounds, and in a cruel inversion of the end of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, feeds on a stranger’s breast milk while pointing a gun to her head (nice). While watching inarticulate Gallo rampage through the snowy forest, one might wonder if we’ve actually wandered into a showing of the Wolverine origins movie. Ah, but then, after Gallo spits up some blood on a pure white horse, the films drifts off to a close we might call “boldly open-ended.” I must have been mistaken. —Michael Koresky