DIR: Jerzy Skolimowski • WRI/PRO: Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska • DOP: Adam Sikora • ED: Réka Lemhényi • DES: Joanna Kaczynska • Cast: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuele Seigner, David L. Price
Essential Killing to me represents all that is wrong with the indie/art house side of the celluloid spectrum. A self important, opaque misfire, the film seems in love with its obtuseness to the detriment of actual story and theme.
A certain contingent of critics and the audience will applaud its daring, its bravery, but they are propping up a poor film and falling for an obvious con. Experimental filmmaking as an umbrella term houses a lot of different types of work but their stylistic freedom is self evident. With no pressure to kowtow to traditional structures and tropes these films have the opportunity to present themselves in myriad forms. However this can easily slide into artless pretension and flat out self indulgence. Daring melts into dreary and the only ‘brave performances’ one will find are those in the audience with the fortitude to withstand it.
After attacking some foreign troops in the desert, a vaguely Middle Eastern soldier (Vincent Gallo) is captured and brought to a vague European country as a prisoner. He promptly escapes and we follow his journey of survival against a bleak landscape, with only his instincts and murderous abilities to guide him. If you noticed that I used ‘vague’ twice therethen you will soon realise the essential lie at the heart of this film.
The film mistakes vagueness for depth, its crutch of relying on an audience to fill in its own blanks is wearying when there is not a single attempt made to actually engage us. I’m all for keeping things back, allowing other interpretations and so on but this is done here to a ridiculous extreme. There is no fundamental hook and even as an example of ‘pure visceral cinema’ this falls quite short. Presented with nothing to care about and with no stakes I’m not sure what exactly I’m meant to feel when watching this. The austere landscape, the paper thin characters, the grainy shooting style, it all amounts to nothing when the barest amount of scrutiny is applied. We need a spark to draw us in but all that’s here is a drab, soulless place where there is no sympathy, no contrast. What remains is shallow nihilism.
This could have worked as a short film, a sharp shocking example of brutality and desperation set in a world familiar but twisted into a nightmarish dystopia. The rules of a short would have given a kinder context to its narrative dead ends but ambition leaves this a bloated mess.
I will admit a certain bias against Vincent Gallo and the cult that surrounds him but despite my intense disdain for the picture praise must be sent his way. In a wordless performance he does manage to convey a wide arrange of emotion and while it may not be enough to make you invest in this story it is at least a consistently passionate piece of acting and easily the best feature in this whole affair. It has already received prestige awards from the 67th Venice International Film Festival but in my mind it takes a long time to say nothing particularly interesting, or for that matter, anything new. Without so much as a singular new insight outside of ‘War is a hellish dehumanising experience’ it falls short in both the war film category and also in the company of its more awkward art-house brethren.
IFCO website for details)
Essential Killing is released on 1st April 2011