Is Vincent Gallo actually a good actor? He’s worked his way into my posts before, though I’m not quite sure I can answer that question. His monotone acting killed Tetro for me, and the Brown Bunny is beyond problematic. I think the best thing I’ve seen him in is Nenette and Boni, and that’s because his detached style matches Claire Denis’ own. Jerzy Skolimowski may have found the solution: don’t let the man talk.
Essential Killing was on my radar for Skolimowski – whose The Shout has been on my “want to find” list for some time – and because Cahiers du Cinema ranked it in their top 10 of last year. Gallo plays Mohammed, presumably a Taliban terrorist who is taken prisoner by American soldiers after killing several of their own. Following a car accident during transport, Mohammed escapes and spends the remainder of the film enacting “essential killings,” and trying to match wits and brawn with nature and pursuers.
The essential killings of the title, could refer to any number of deaths. As mentioned, Mohammed kills a few American soldiers early in the film. Throughout the remainder he kills many others during his escape. Taken from his perspective – and the film is remarkable for this very reason: we are in Mohammed’s POV for much of the film and he is certainly sympathetic – all of these killings are essential to his escape and survival. There’s only one confounding moment – one inessential killing – where Mohammed murders an innocent bystander, a working-class man, for no seeming reason other than his internal insistence that all that aren’t helping him are hurting him. It’s a bit of a flaw in the film, and a moment where we’re pulled from the otherwise nicely complex, layered portrayal.
Mohammed actually doesn’t speak during the entire 90 minutes of the film. He grunts, but is largely completely silent. Tthis forces the man versus nature theme that runs throughout the film to become all the more prevalent. The sound design – crunching footsteps, howling wind, disturbing silence – dominate. We’re pulled into Mohammed’s frightened world and his need for survival – where survival frequently depends upon silence.
The decision to make the terrorist sympathetic – a decidedly un-American perspective, is a unique one. This is no Four Lions where the terrorist is likable but bumbling. Mohammed is dangerous, if confused and scared. He shoots three American soldiers in the first act of the film not because they directly attack him, but because he’s backed into a corner and because, as his timid motions imply, it’s what he knows (read: he’s seen the opposite occur). The portrayal of an American military that uses physical and psychological torture is exceedingly egregious – giving us no other mode of affection outside of Mohammed himself. When Mohammed kills post-car accident, the actions are at once mechanical and instinctual – he’s presented as animalistic, and the men he kills are innocent and have no defense. Still, it’s understood that his goal is one that is common across humanity: survival. Mohammed shows no desire to kill. He gains no pleasure or accolades from it, and doesn’t exhibit any stereotypical terrorist fanaticism. Instead, Essential Killing frames him less as an “anti-American murderer” out for blood, but rather as a man defending his own country and later defending his own right to freedom and life. It’s ironic given military credos to defend that same right.
Though this is very much man versus nature, Skolimowski doesn’t mind showing the beauty of nature. Here’s a still from about 1/3 into the film:
Mohammed very nearly blends into the landscape (intentionally from a narrative standpoint because he stole a marine’s camouflage and from a thematic standpoint to make him literally one with nature). But this shot indicates freedom more than the terror of the hunted. That sunrise in the distance, the openness of the horizon all points to freedom. This is the irony that Skolimowski plays with throughout – the dual nature of nature – both harming and helping, destroying and creating. It’s nature that nearly kills Mohammed (with extreme temperatures) and then also hides him (with the same extreme temperatures – the snow).
When the marines later converge on Mohammed’s suspected hiding place, the framing strategy changes:
It’s still a snowy wide-shot, but the horizon line is much higher and trees line the background. There are also no diagonals, as in the above shot, pointing to an exit. Here, though the space is open, the figures are offered no exit. Mohammed escapes, the marines fail.
The ending of the film very nearly fails by falling in line with one-too-many tried (and overplayed) war escapee tropes. Mohammed finds refuge with the lonely woman in the lonely cottage. Grand Illusion-style, she seems devoid of partisan politics and takes him in, nursing him back to health, and helping to avoid the enemy. The scene is just short of their falling in love. Luckily that bit is avoided, and instead, Mohammed rides away on a majestic white horse.
Littered with too much symbolism, the film ends as such:
Gorgeous and enigmatic? Absolutely. A little too metaphorical for its own good (horse without a rider, Mohammed literally becoming the horse/nature)? Yes. Though the ending strongly implies Mohammed’s death, the film might have been best served to not raise him to such mythic proportions as this final frame suggests.