Essential Killing

Bear Grylls, eat your heart out

This Polish film by veteran director Jerzy Skolimowski is a confident piece of pure cinema – a story told through images alone. Vincent Gallo plays a Jihadi who escapes from capture by the American army and struggles to survive as he flees through snow-coated forests. He is wordless throughout, but far from silent. Variously grunting, panting and wailing in pain, Gallo carries the audience brilliantly through the drama, his hook-nosed, bulgy-eyed face wonderfully expressive of increasing anguish.

He kills when he has to, and whilst he still has the energy. He feeds – classically – on berries, but also raids a termite mound for miniature morsels and even nibbles on some bark. This is desperate stuff. There’s an astonishing scene involving a local woman and her baby which illustrates just how base his world view has become.

In the middle third, there’s a slight lull as the action becomes a touch repetitive and the implausibility of his escape becomes clearer. But just as the audience’s attention threatens to wane, the film embraces this lack of realism and turns, intriguingly, into something stranger. A woman from Gallo’s dreams appears in front of him and disappears again – and then, in a brilliant sequence, he’s haunted by a plague of friendly dogs.

These hallucinatory elements are filmed entirely naturally – so who’s to say whether the film’s eventual denouement is to be taken as ‘real’ or simply the product of delirium. Either way, when it comes it’s extraordinary: suddenly Gallo is aligned with that other great literary outcast, Frankenstein’s creature, as he is taken in by a deaf-dumb woman and cared for in her idyllic woodland hut.

Gallo, like the creature, is a killer with whom we sympathise. They are kindred spirits in their utter solitude. And, like the creature, he is ultimately beyond redemption: their respite can only be temporary. When the kind woman sends him on his way on a majestic white horse, it soon becomes clear he’s not going far. We are left to watch the horse, standing alone in the snow, stained by Gallo’s blood – an elusive, eloquent and beautiful final image.

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2 Responses to Essential Killing

  1. zed says:

    The film’s title reflects the animalistic instinct for life which makes self-preservative killing possible. The utter desperation in feeding off wild berries, and tree bark, from an ant hill and (astonishingly) from a lactating mother, equally show the primitive level reached by this man in his attempt to survive.

    The near total lack of any dialogue in the film adds further to this at times extraordinary cinematic experience which engages and occasionally attacks the senses. The lack of colour – in the snow covered landscape, much of the dress of the film’s characters and the beautiful white horse – further deprives us of stimuli other than the question of “will he make it” to the home he conjures up in his delusions.

    In the end his struggle appears to fail him but is there something noble in the drive to survive whatever the odds……

    • JamieR says:

      Yes – I never thought of the whiteness as deprivation like that, but you’re right. It also serves to give the splashes of red, when they occur, all the more impact.

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