Synapse to Cintax
Death Becomes Him
Essential Killing is, thankfully, everything I pictured it wouldn’t be – its title suggesting a far less introspective work than it transpired. Alas, this only goes to show how misleading a title can be.
Plot-wise, we see the protagonist (played by Vincent Gallo and credited at the bitter end as Mohammad) kill a number of American soldiers in some generic desert location. There’s no back-story at this juncture, no tangible ‘reason’ for him picking up an RPG from a fallen comrade (fallen because of whom?) and firing. We instantly gauge him as a terrorist; the bogeyman at the centre of this piece. His capture and subsequent torture while donned in a characteristic orange jumpsuit is, one expects, par for the course. The real crux of the story, however, starts once his fortuitous escape leads him out into the snow-covered wilderness. Once here, his quest for survival begins in an environment far removed from the arid one encountered prior.
The tenseness amidst these early scenes is both palpable and plausible. Skolimowski’s captures these thrilling chases with aplomb and, later on, the numerous starkly-filmed flashbacks encapsulate Gallo’s increasing delirium amidst bloodied symbolism. All of these scenes are helped in no small measure by Vincent Gallo’s beautifully reserved, yet wonderfully effective performance. A performance which conveys so much trepidation and so much anguish with each, arguably, essential kill – and not a single utterance of a word from him in the entire film. Oh – I forgot to mention – Gallo is deafened (plot spoiler…?) in the opening scenes (…non). Soundless then, in an environment seldom punctuated. And, when it is, such moments – a dose of incidental music or sparse score there – garner further impact.
Still, for a film ostensibly about killing, it is eerily calm and pensive. Moreover, it’s worth noting Skolimowski’s decision not to mention any names of characters throughout. In doing so, it plays on the assumptions of the viewer and somehow guides it away from political distractions. That said it would be ignorant of me to sidestep that notion entirely although this is more about contextualising the environment in which the drama takes place. Also, there’s little suggestion of pity for Gallo’s character. Instead, the film strikes one as an observation of survival and the extents to which man will be prepared to go to in order to ensure it. On a stylistic front – and also with its refusal to take sides – comparisons to Steve McQueen’s Hunger come to mind. Although it is far harder to separate the political themes of the latter film (and its events were based on truth), the observations of man’s destruction, (or self-destruction in the case of Hunger) along with flashbacks to a life which existed before, similarly question the very nature of life itself.
For that is why Essential Killing is so impressive; not only is it exciting and extremely well-acted with a lead at the top of his game but, on a greater level, it identifies and analyses the primal drive of self-preservation. The emotional and physical costs of surviving are constantly questioned and the merits – at the sake of others – seem more and more difficult to unearth.