“People are strange when you’re a stranger / Faces look ugly when you’re alone / Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted / Streets are uneven when you’re down / People are strange.”
Despite being written when he was only five, The Doors’ classic single People Are Strange (covered by Echo & The Bunnymen in 1987) seems to be about the life and career of Vincent Gallo, cinema’s most provocative oddball. His face has an eternal sadness written across its surface, exploited in films such as Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) and The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003), the latter of which kicked up a controversial storm for the unsimulated oral sex scene with his then-girlfriend Chloë Sevigny, an equally compelling kook of indie cinema. It is entirely possible to watch a Vincent Gallo film silently and understand the story by reading his face; indeed, this is true of both the aforementioned films, which take place in long stretches of piercing silence. But nobody has employed Gallo’s expressive visage with such intense precision as Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, whose political thriller Essential Killing renders the actor entirely silent, driving the narrative through his desperate and hungry eyes.
The film finds Gallo playing Mohammed, who we first meet fleeing from American forces in the desert. Skolimowski’s camera finds three compelling viewpoints to unfurl this set-piece from; the overhead gaze of an army helicopter, the ground-level exploits of three soldiers, and the P.O.V. of Mohammed himself, a jihadi struggling in this vast landscape, seemingly escaping from his past, or perhaps even his future. The scene is tense and immediately involving. The swooping helicopter shots lend us a wide perspective on the unfolding action, but it’s not long before the precise editing plants us into Mohammed’s viewpoint, the deafening sound of swirling helicopter blades now replaced by his paced but heavy breathing. The scene utilizes masses of space yet its action is compact, eventually drawing us into a cave where Mohammed kills the three soldiers with an RPG. From here he is chased down by the helicopter (again, the scene snaps between camera angles with thrilling exactitude) and caught in the blast of one of its missiles, deafening him to all but the sound of an incessant ringing.
From here we get a brief scene of torture, inflicted by the US military onto the jihadi prisoners, but Skolimowski seems more concerned with once again letting his protagonist free. A roadside accident allows Mohammed to again run for his life, and it’s here that the film should become a rousing adventure. But unfortunately, despite some interesting set-pieces, Essential Killing never matches the thrills of its opening minutes, and instead gets lost in an unspecified woodland. There’s definitely a bleak sensibility to the action, and the harshly cold setting stacks the odds against our protagonist, who must live by instinct and survival, all the while being hunted by armed forces who have the advantage of traveling by land and air. At first he is shoeless, but the blunt murder of two men allows him a new wardrobe, and we begin to understand the ruthlessness of this silent man whose journey we are following. It’s kill or be killed, and stay alive for however long the conditions will allow.
The problem lies in the narrative, and how aimless it all feels. I understand that the story is unfolding from Mohammed’s perspective, so we’re meant to feel as lost and confused as him. I get that he’s making up his route, digging his own path, and so a developed narrative through-line might hinder the believability of his plight, but this is, after all, cinema. For entire stretches of time the film just feels lost, and shoehorned flashbacks do little to develop or excuse our character who is, after all, a terrorist. It’s a brave move to fixate on the bad guy, and even braver to ask us to like him, but these ideas are pointless if we don’t ever get a sense of the character; around the 40 minute mark the film just becomes like an exercise video, albeit one with machine guns. The film reaches calamitous levels of silliness before it eventually finds a point, with said silliness climaxing in a breast-feeding scene which recalls a darker version of Me, Myself & Irene (Farrelly Brothers, 2000).
The point it settles at involves the wonderful Emmanuelle Seigner, a compelling screen actress who brings genuine warmth to the film. Here Skolimowski threatens to develop the Mohammed character, provide a dynamic, even moralize. It would be clichéd, sure, but it would be something. Sadly he once again lets us down, and Mohammed rides he bloody horse away from the woman whose presence had livened up a decidedly dull film. Disappointing then, although Gallo fans will find something to like here. In the words of Jim Morrison: people are strange…
As expected for a new release, the image and sound are solid. A 2-minute feature on how the helicopter effects were accomplished is throwaway, as is the theatrical trailer, but there’s an interesting 18-minute interview with Skolimowski which rounds off the package nicely.
Essential Killing is out on DVD and blu-ray 11th July 2011.
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Stars: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner, Zach Cohen
Runtime: 83 min
Country: Poland, Norway, Ireland, Hungary