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.