A fugitive on the run can easily become a man without identity. After all, it is our relationships that tend to define us, and if we also cannot speak or interact with our fellow man, we could be almost anyone. The escapee in Essential Killing could be anyone, although he happens to be a Taliban soldier.
Vincent Gallo plays Mohammed (apparently this is his name, but no one calls him this) who is captured in some nameless desert by the US army. Some time later, after the bus he’s being transported in crashes on an icy road, he escapes and ends up fleeing from a small army of soldiers across the snowy forests of northern Europe. That is after he has suffered some ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ at the hands of the Americans. We all know the drill by now: orange jumpsuits and blindfolds, isolation, barking dogs, beating and water-boarding. It’s not pretty, and the director’s use of a point-of-view camera makes the experience even more powerful.
The director, Jerzy Skolimowski, speaking in London recently, said that the genesis of the film was found in two events. Firstly, it was revealed that the CIA had a secret interrogation centre, or ‘black site‘, in the woods of northern Poland near to where Skolimowski has a house. Secondly, a few years ago he almost had a nasty accident when his car slid off the road in bad weather. This got him thinking about what would happen if a similar incident occurred to one of the buses transporting CIA prisoners and someone managed to escape. You might say that an idea escaped after his own crash and went on to become Essential Killing.
The tone of the film changes from claustrophobic terror to hallucinatory desperation once the prisoner has made his escape. One thing remains constant: the prisoner remains silent. In terms of the logic of the story this is because, neither in captivity nor on the run, are their people who speak his own language. But this silence makes it harder to see him as a member of the Taliban, either a terrorist or even a freedom-fighter; he is merely a man trying to survive in the wilderness.
Skolimowski has said his film is not political. The horrors of the detainment scenes make that hard to entirely agree with, but the action in the woods raises the film to something more existential. We are presented with the hard facts of a human being and his will to live. Although there are flashbacks to his life as a zealot and some violent encounters with those who threaten his freedom, the man loping through the pine trees doesn’t appear to be driven by ideology.
In the woods, the man encounters humans, but hardly stops in for a cuppa, of course if he did he wouldn’t have to resort to the sort of desperate measures he does in order to survive. Out in the woods there is monumental endurance, a little humour, more violence, false hope and despair, weirdness, and even beauty. Vincent Gallo puts in a fine performance as a broken, grunting, creature lost in the wild. Although Essential Killings is about a man on the run, it’s miles and miles away from equivalent Hollywood fare like The Fugitive. For starters it’s hard to sympathise with him and there are far too few unlikely escapes. Finally we’re left with a lonely soul confronting his own mortality.