In Essential Killing, Vincent Gallo plays Mohammed, a man on the run from American forces; and a man who may or may not be a member of the Taliban. Either way, he’s clearly terrified, with his hands shaking even as he pulls the trigger to kill them.
He gets chased down and captured by an American helicopter, then transferred to a detention camp in Poland for questioning. The soldier in charge starts by asking him if he can speak English, and then starts to shout obscenities at him even though he clearly doesn’t understand and, as we see from his perspective, can hardly hear after the blast from the missile shot at him by the helicopter.
Because their interrogation has failed, the Americans torture him. That’s right, torture. There is a scene where Mohammed is subjected to waterboarding – a scene for which director Jerzy Skolimowski is unlikely to get any thanks from the US Army – and he’s also subjected to beatings. It’s important to remember at this point that we know nothing of the character of Mohammed, not even whether he’s actually a terrorist or just an unfortunate man who has ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Skolimowski has done an excellent job to keep a large element of ambiguity so that any feelings the audience has one way or the other about Mohammed will be their own opinions imposed upon the film.
Mohammed however, gets a lucky break when the truck that he is being transported in goes off the road and he is able to escape, but this is Poland in the winter and the snow is as thick as the weather is bitter and after hiding for a while he thinks better of running away and tries to hand himself in. But luck is currently going his way, as the man he tries to surrender to gets out of an SUV with music blazing whilst on the phone, which gives Mohammed cover to grab the man’s gun and dispatch both he and his passenger without attracting attention.
From this point on the film follows Mohammed on his battle to evade recapture and his journey through this unfamiliar and hostile environment. Special praise has to go to Gallo who, without uttering a single work or dialogue manages to convey and astonishing array of emotions and transform Mohammed from potential terrorist to a sympathetic character whose pain and despondency you can’t help but feel. At no point does it feel like he’s over-acting and his performance will keep you transfixed even though for large chunks of the film it’s just him on the screen.
Essential Killing is a compelling story even though it’s a film without much of a story at all. The amount of room left for audience interpretation is remarkable, as if the film just presents itself and tells viewers to make of it what they will. It’s a really refreshing change from the story-heavy films that seem like they’re holding the hand of the viewer all the way through, and a film that ought to put Jerzy Skolimowski right back at the forefront of filmmaking.