Posted by: greercn | April 12, 2011

Essential Killing

It’s a harrowing and beautiful movie, in equal measures.  Influential director Jerzy Skolimowski has been away from film for nearly 20 years and he brings the sensibilities of an artist to this eerie tale.

The hero is played by Vincent Gallo, who has no dialogue apart from moans and groans and it is his facial expressions and physical movement that dominate this. There are few words throughout and effective but low key music.

Mohammed (the name is stated in the end credits and not during the movie) is captured by American soldiers and taken to a cold northern country. He escapes and makes his way across hostile landscapes with helicopters and search parties looking for him.

Viewers may wish to note that there is quite a lot of very graphic violence, given a soft palette by an artist, but not out of focus or distant. It’s hard to watch.

There is never any statement of which country Mohammed is from or where he is, but the landscapes are Poland and Norway and sparsely populated.

So most of the 83 minutes are Vincent’s character doing what he has to do to survive. It’s “Walkabout” without company, purpose or possible positive ending and set in snow.

Emmanuelle Seigner is in this, briefly, playing a deaf mute woman who communicates with Mohammed.

What does it all mean? The ten people at Stratford Picturehouse were asking each other that very question. There were some interesting theories that this was meant to be a take on the Mahdi, the prophesied saviour of Islam and surreal scenes involving a white horse give some credence to this idea.

Another theory runs that “Essential Killing” is about man’s struggle with nature and yet another is that it’s trying to make a meaningful statement about the effect of war and acute rendition on the collective, by keeping a focus on the individual.

Would someone raised in a hot country (there are flashbacks) be able to navigate snow in this way, with insufficient clothing? Suspend disbelief here, because this is about survival instincts and how they function. 

The cinematography is just extraordinary and conveys the loneliness of light and darkness in snow to very distinctive effect.

It is not a “feel good” movie but it does make you think. Whether you can handle the difficult and challenging aspects of this is up to you. I am glad I saw it, but I had heard enough about it from others to know what to expect. Two prizes from Venice and a whole lot of buzz about Vincent Gallo’s performance seem deserved.

On this 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space, it is intriguing to see a film that devotes itself to one man’s struggle with nature and other people, without forcing a point of view or nationalist concerns onto the viewer.



  1. Seeing Gallo suckled at the teat of that Polish woman was worth the price of admission.

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