Essential Killing: Highlight of Toronto/Venice Fests

By Patrick Z. McGavin
Toronto International Film festival (Masters section)–The great Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, who revived a dormant directing career two years ago with the superb “Four Nights with Anna,” continues his late-career revival with the disquieting, surreal and politically charged existential survival tale “Essential Killing.”
“Four Nights with Anna” was the director’s first film in 17 years. He’d spent much of the time away from filmmaking as a painter and sculptor and also doing some acting in films like Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” and quite memorably, in David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.”
The new work just premiered simultaneously in Venice and Toronto. At Venice, it won three awards, including a best acting prize to lead Vincent Gallo, who plays the film’s unnamed and mute protagonist. Even more so than “Four Nights with Anna,” whose theme was male obsession, the new film is about the cinematic possibility of disassociation. 
The narrative has been utterly stripped down, deprived of observational or psychological expression. Everything is fractured, like time and space, and particularly point of view, like the way Skolimowski takes the perspective of his hooded prisoner, and we see only broken up images through the slit in his mask. The movie has a relationship to painting or sculpture, involving texture and imagery that moves from the dreamy to the bleak and terrifying.
Skolimowski takes the staples of the chase and pursuit movie, but he appends it to a very particular time. He also dispenses with questions of guilt or innocence, or complicity, instead concerned almost wholly with survival. Surveillance is the dominant mode of expression in the first third as Gallo’s soldier, seeking sanctuary in a deep cave, wipes out three American soldiers on patrol. Captured moments later by a helicopter attack crew, he is taken to a NATO detention facility and subjected to extreme interrogation methods.
Transported to an unknown destination, he escapes when the vehicle carrying him as part of the convoy skids off the icy road. The movie’s final half is one of pure sensation filled with dread and surprise as Gallo’s soldier is pursued though the ice-capped, snowbound forests and landscapes by a band of specially armed soldiers, accompanied by attack dogs and buttressed by helicopter surveillance.
Becalmed during his sleep by dreams or hallucinations of his religious training, the man is silent verbally, but the physical pain he suffers is relentless. Skolimowski and his excellent cinematographer Adam Sikora utilize a constantly prowling and alert camera, rushing from tight close ups to overhead shots that create a vertiginous sense of rupture and unbearable tension. In the most extraordinary sequence in the film, trying to evade his captors and a dog, the soldier falls off a ravine and plunges into an icy reservoir, the camera perfectly positioned underneath.
Skolimowski’s early Polish films (“Barrier,” “Hands Up!”) exhibited a savagely bleak and mordant Eastern European humor about confinement and brutish political systems that denied all forms of personal expression. Some critics have speculated the new film is a parable about the director’s own childhood of growing up amidst Nazi- and Soviet occupation armies.
It is also quite clearly a commentary about the role played by Poland, now liberated and part of NATO, in the war on terror. Poland has played a central part in one of the most controversial actions of Bush Administration, the creation of black op detention facilities in the former Eastern block to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists. 
There is not much dialogue in “Essential Killing,” but all the local dialect and language spoken is Polish, leaving little doubt about the destination. It is not an irrelevant point given the personal ramifications of those caught in the collateral damage, like several foresters and truckers. What turns the material from simply being a provocative and daring work of cinema is the expert way Skolimowski shows the soldier’s bizarre and strange interaction with the civilian population. 
The most unsettling is his violation of a young mother whom he encounters on her bicycle and young child in the backwoods. The movie’s one moment of tenderness occurs between the soldier and a sympathetic woman (Emmanuelle Seigneur, not insignificantly the wife of Roman Polanski) who aids him.
Gallo is an extremely polarizing figure, but the film again shows, under the hands of a strong and capable director, his willingness to submit to the demands and rigor of the part. The role has none of the baroque flourishes or grandstanding of some of his other parts. 
As storytelling, the movie requires extraordinary and repeated willing suspensions of disbelief. As narrative, the movie is easy to put down and even deride for the wildness of its conception. As filmmaking, as a work of troubling and pure art, “Essential Killing” is a very impressive and haunting achievement.