Essential Killing: Human element

Human element

Ouchy: Gallo as a Taliban in pain in Essential Killing

Vincent Gallo as a Taliban POW fights for his life in Essential Killing

Like any movie writer, I’ve seen more than my share of gratuitous violence in all manner of movies, and now, with Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, I’ve seen a film where every moment, including the violence, is essential.

Essential Killing won a Special Jury Prize in Venice last fall, probably for being an utterly original film about war and torture in a decade full of both. Vincent Gallo, who plays the protagonist without uttering a single word, endured great physical hardship to make it, and most of his bruises and injuries are not, apparently, mere tricks of the camera. The film itself almost defies description – it is a most pure and honest depiction of human suffering as any I’ve seen.

The story begins in Afghanistan, where Gallo is a Taliban fighter who has been hiding in the rocks for ages amidst American armed forces and contractors. At the beginning, he is already terrified and tired, and after seizing an opportunity to escape during a helicopter raid by killing three Americans with a rocket launcher he can barely operate, he runs out into the open, shows himself, and is captured.

As a POW, he is soon questioned, tortured and waterboarded. He can barely hear the questions because of residual ringing in his ears. Then he is transferred to Poland, Skolimowski’s homeland (did he want to make the point that we are all tacit in the actions of global war?), where he seizes another opportunity to escape. We follow his journey through the frozen steppe as he desperately runs from death and towards the flickering possibility of survival.

Skolimowski mortifies Gallo’s flesh – he is caught in a leg-hold trap, frozen, starved and is eventually pinned under a falling tree – and inspires us to sympathy because we feel the universality of his struggle for survival. The film takes a turn for the allegorical when, after suffering these life-threatening indignities, he meets a woman with an infant on the road. Initially, with a weapon pointed at her, we fear for what this terrified, desperate man might do, and what he actually does with the young mother might possibly be a film first.

Skolimowski is definitely going for shock value, as befits a film about human desperation in the midst of war conditions. Gallo’s suffering is as immediate, and more purposeful, than the gore to which we’re accustomed. And unlike the vestiges of torture porn, it’s utterly unforgettable.

Essential Killing

Posted in