Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Watched - No 6 - Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski,2010) Cult Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, a graduate of the acclaimed National Film School in Lodz, and the man responsible for Deep End (1970) and The Shout (1978) amongst many others, returns with Essential Killing, a stripped back, visually striking tale of survival amidst an unknown and unforgiving landscape. Vincent Gallo stars, and excels, as an unnamed 'terrorist' captured in the desert by American forces and subsequently tortured and later renditioned to a wintery climate somewhere in Eastern Europe. Whilst being transported across the harsh terrain he escapes after a road accident and embarks upon an unlikely and dangerous bid for freedom, where to kill or be killed is his only foreseeable option.

Filmed in Israel, Poland and Norway, Essential Killing may point to Gallo's character being a Taliban Jihadist, and the orange jumpsuits and black hoods witnessed in the torture sequences certainly conjure up the spectre of Guantanamo Bay, but Skolimowski largely eschews overt political themes to concentrate on a more ambiguous narrative where base instincts and the primitive urge to survive hold sway. Gallo's wordless role, and natural resemblance to a number of ethnic groups, helps to strip away any politicised agenda and leave a stark and at times existential portrait of the limits of human endurance. Reminiscent of both Joseph Losey's underrated, dystopian survival tale Figures in a Landscape (1970) and Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) Essential Killing dispenses with the philosophising of the former and the racial politics of the latter as Gallo's disoriented, terrified and weakening character battles his pursuers, the beautiful but cruel landscape and his own deteriorating physical and mental state.

As is often the case in Skolimowski's films, the use of sound juxtaposed with moments of silence is integral to the narrative - deafening rock music, tortuous cries, barking dogs, the angry buzz of chainsaws and the opressive whirr of helicopter rotors have a dizzying, nauseous effect on both escapee and audience, leavened in brief moments of respite before resuming their attack on the senses. A deftly handled hallucinogenic sequence, obtuse flashbacks, increasingly bizarre situations and inconclusive climax make Essential Killing a defiantly arthouse, non-commercial and experiential film that mainstream audiences may find alienating and frustratingly esoteric. For me, Skolimowski's latest film is an artistically driven, beautifully constructed and thought provoking piece that is a fine addition to its director's body of work.

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