Jerzy Skolimowski, most familiar to movie-goers as the hard-drinking, casually racist and fiercely familial Uncle Stepan of Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, has also had a varied career as a film director, having generated most of his filmography in his native Poland. His Uncle Stepan came off as so igrained that it was difficult to tell whether the filmmaker is this prickly in real life or just a terrific actor. His choice of lead for Essential Killing certainly hints at a shared kinship/madness/what have you - Vincent Gallo portrays a nameless (listed in the credits as Muhammad) extremist who is captured by US forces, shipped off to a detention center, water-boarded, and shipped off again to a geographically unmoored, heavily snowed-in region.
A vicious car crash later, Gallo is on the run, one man in an orange jumpsuit thrown into a inhospitable environment, an undesirable hunted by insurmountable forces. As he makes his way through an unnamed forest, basic needs such as a warmth and food lead the man to fight and kill, knowing that if he is spotted or caught, he will likely be shot on sight. He's damned, a stranger in a strange land, unprepared but invigorated by a ironclad will to live, and Skolimowski's film forces us to confront head-on the unlikely survival of this man. Casting aside any political affiliations to focus instead of the physical and existential toll that hours in the wilderness exact without mercy, Essential Killing is a taut, lean thriller, so simple in what it attempts to accomplish that it feels more like a few mostly satisfying bites than a full meal.
It is also a film almost completely without dialogue, every bit dedicated to the sounds of nature in isolation. Gallo does not appear to spare himself in any way in this role, concerned not with carrying out any idealistic goals but simply figuring out a way to survive. Watching a likely extremist murder innocent people out of necessity makes his character nearly impossible to sympathize with, but from an intellectual perspective, the film works well as an examination of facing down impossible odds. Liam Neeson and crew did it earlier in this year's The Grey and while Essential Killing shares more in common with Joe Wright's Hanna, Skolimowski has minimal interest in stylistic flourishes and maximum intent in visual clarity. It is a film carefully planned out and satisfyingly focused on delivering a traditional thriller experience, one that never forces the viewer to question just what is going on onscreen.
Well-made as it is, and compelling as Gallo's performance may be, the film is difficult to emotionally connect with and to view as something other than a grim story of survival, notable more for the punishment dealt out to our lead than any kind of character ark or what have you. It's an untraditional film and yet hosts elements that are very much owed to the man vs. nature genre that likely peaked with Boorman's Deliverance. A worthy addition that is unlike to see many repeat screenings, Essential Killing rises above its curio status, but not by much.
A 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer is terrific in the face of the elements, snow in particular, that can bring a poor transfer to its knees. A solid, clean visual presentation with rich colors despite a cinematography that veers toward the slightly muted when not flashing back to our protag's sun-studded past in a parched countryside.
A 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround and a stereo track are offered and both do a fine job of making the soundscape both oppressive for Gallo's character and immersive for the viewer. Most will naturally opt for the 5.1 track.
A lone Jerzy Skolimowski interview is all we get, but luckily the director is not tightlipped and his gregarious nature shines through when breaking down how the film landed Gallo and the complexities of shooting in his native Poland. Even a few minutes are enough to recognize an artist in love with his artform.
Essential Killing comes Recommended but few will want to take advantage of repeat viewings.
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