Essential Killing is Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s second film in twenty years. With its story of a Taliban political prisoner (played with typically method discomfort by actor Vincent Gallo) on the run from his American captors after a crash in Europe, Skolimowski explicitly avoids getting embroiled in the politics of the situation. As a result, the precise location of the chase as well as the escapee’s name is not revealed. Instead, Skolimowski aims for a much more tame study of what makes us human and how quickly we can lose these qualities.
Despite a certain dedication from Gallo, laziness seems to pervade throughout the film. In 2008, Skolimowski made his comeback with Four Nights With Anna, a film that he shot entirely in and around his house and the nearby wood. Much pleased with the ease of a shoot so close to home, Skolimowski seems to have fashioned to shoot that could also largely be shot nearby. While watching the film, you begin to wonder whether the film was conceived with this primarily in mind, rather than any exploration into humanity.
This laziness is primarily evident in the plotting, though plodding would be a better word, which relies much too heavily on the escaped convict constantly bumping into several different types of people. It becomes very hard to believe that the American soldiers can’t find him when such a variety of people are very adept at doing just that. Lorry drivers, fishermen, mothers on bicycles and deaf-mute nurses all pop up just when Gallo seems to need them. Aside from that, the film’s episodic nature smacks of being completely unplanned and arbitrary. At one point, Gallo meets a seemingly endless pack of dogs before being hit by a falling tree. In the end, you are left merely waiting for the inhospitable elements to take their toll. Skolimowski’s apparent unifying theme is largely left unexplored except for one uncomfortable and ultimately unnecessary scene. Essential Killing is far from being a tight and taut thriller and more like the ramblings of a man without a script editor or a tough producer.
That said, the opening sequence set in Afghanistan sees Skolimowski out on location and with nowhere to put his feet up. As a result, he delivers a beautifully shot sequence that is believable and impressive. Far from being another Lebanon, it does promise a film that will keep the attention it has so skilfully grasped. What follows instead are dull suspense sequences and unconvincing, apparently metaphorical vignettes with several endings. Vincent Gallo may have put himself through the wringer, but it does not really matter. He turns in a gritty performance in a film that doesn’t seem to want to be gritty.
Essential Killing isn’t a particularly bad film, it is just the work of a director who seems too accustomed to comfort and critical adulation to make the film that his ideas demand. It is a ramble, a half-formed concept, and an unmade film to entertain its filmmaker before the real film arrives. The problem is that Skolimowski seems to have persevered and made the film he wasn’t supposed to make.