Film Review: Essential Killing

Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing is an interesting experiment. Although there is a certain amount of tension and intrigue, it is difficult to fully engage with the film.

After being arrested for the murder of soldiers in Afghanistan, Mohammed is interrogated by the American military. Out in a convoy for transportation, he manages to escape after a road accident. Finding himself in unfamiliar surroundings, Mohammed tries to survive whilst evading his captors…

Essential Killing is a disquieting movie. The narrative is rather straightforward; the film is simply a survival story. One of the key factors that distinguishes Skolimowski’s film from others in this category is the choice of protagonist. Mohammed is a killer; there is no dispute about this fact. Moreover, he is the murderer of American soldiers, which suggests his antagonism towards Western values. Thus, Essential Killing requests that its audience empathise with a character that would more often than not fulfil the function of the villain.

Little is revealed about Mohammed initially. The film features a series of flashbacks offering a bit more about the character. These sequences are not particularly illuminating, however. Although there is an emphasis on religion and family, these do not shape the character very much. The film gives little indication as to the personality of the protagonist. Therefore, it is difficult for viewers to identify with Mohammed. Essential Killing posits its audience in an unusually passive position. The viewer cannot root for the main character and is left to watch unemotional as the action unfolds.

The film is preoccupied with contrasts. It is striking how sparse the dialogue is in the film. Instead, the silence is contrasted with some quite violent imagery. Furthermore, Mohammed’s acts of violence, albeit in survival mode, are at a juxtaposition with the peaceful nature of his religion. The film says more about the nature of humans than anything else. When put in extreme situations, individuals will eschew civilised behaviour and do anything in order to survive.

Vincent Gallo offers a strong performance in a very demanding role. Given the lack of dialogue, the actor replies on the physicality of his performance to convey feeling. The art direction is good, once again using the strong contrast of the white snow and red blood to great effect. The score is somewhat lacking, and perhaps could have been omitted in places.

Essential Killing is not the easiest film to watch. Although it has its flaws, it is a worthwhile endeavour for those who want a film from which to disconnect.

Essential Killing is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on 11th July 2011.