This past Thursday Toronto’s premier film location TIFF Bell Lightbox hosted a special promotional screening of Jerzy Skolimowski’s new film Essential Killing.
Starting Vincent Gallo the film delivers a vivid and at times shocking portrayal of a desperate man on the run; and in the European tradition of thought-provoking cinema it calls for an analysis that extends past the simple thumb up or down review.
Hence, YouNxt asked two film aficionados to give us their take on Essential Killing…
Essential Killing – REVIEW BY Kasia Kaminska
Archetypes revisited. Without giving too much away, Skolimowski’s Essential Killing is a surprisingly well rendered re-telling of the old “man vs. himself, man vs. nature and man vs. other men” themes.
It is peculiar in that there is very little dialogue, with none from the lead, played by Vincent Gallo, at all. The limelight is effectively stolen by the spectacular cinematography which sets and follows the story of an Afghan prison escapee making his way through the snow-laden wilds of some unknown and completely foreign land (which, from the snippets of local dialogue, is evidently Poland).
Gallo is evocative as the classic Anti-hero. A fugitive by accident, he stumbles, shivers, shakes and whimpers through the grueling and physically daunting performance. Given the harsh terrain and weather conditions it is plausible that Gallo is not so much acting as struggling to survive the duration it takes to capture the shot. Every step of the way Gallo is terrified and frantic and there isn’t a single ounce of showboating or bravado here. No revelry in violence or killing.
Waterboarding torture scene
Gallo’s character could be anyone. Every time he desperately takes a life to preserve his own he is left shaken to the core, visibly weakened and bloodstained. Skolimowski does not soften nor censor the very desperate human condition in this film. He illustrates every painful act and decision with precise calculation.
We think along with Gallo and consider his next step as if it was to be our own. When he spies an opportunity we wonder what he’ll do: spare the fisherman? Kill the woman on the bicycle? What would any of us do?
The film's controversial and shocking "woman on bicycle scene"
With an army of nameless, faceless, masked commando’s with German shepherds hot on his trail, Gallo must survive in a harsh, unknown and unfriendly environment. The only thing keeping him going are delirious flashbacks into his past; a wife, a child, a home, a family. He was once like you or I. Normal. Not a killer.
There is, however, a small ray of hope for even the most hopeless. Our doomed Gallo experiences one last act of kindness in a world that has already chewed him up and spat him out. It is the literal saving grace, perhaps, for someone beyond saving.
And finally, the best thing about this film besides the acting and storytelling is the very light sprinkling of political commentary. The stage is set and the chase is on. We are left to form our own opinions.
Kasia Kaminska is a Toronto based painter, illustrator and graphic designer who holds a B.A. in Fine Arts from York University. You can learn more about her work at http://www.deepfriedchickenskin.com/
Essential Killing – REVIEW BY Thomas Jankowski
Director Jerzy Skolimowski
There are people who regard Skolimowski a living legend of Polish cinema and those that consider his work to have truly mattered, some two, three decades ago. For instance, Knife in the Water (1962), on which he collaborated with Roman Polanski, is still on mandatory viewing lists of many cinema studies program.
Known for his statement about making films for himself, he nonetheless managed to rouse audiences with an otherworldly Hands Up (shot in 1967, released 1981) and Ferdydurke (billed in some places as 30 Door Key) (1991), a notoriously difficult to adapt or translate modernist novel by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz.
Then Skolimowski released Four Nights with Anna (2008), and Essential Killing (2010). Audiences and critics worldwide seem to agree again that indeed, his voice is unique and that he matters. Not that he means to.
He shot Four Nights with Anna next to his house and had hoped to do the same with Essential Killing. Instead, the film took him around Poland, Israel and Norway, and caused him to shoot in -32 weather and to contract an adverse form of pneumonia, deemed very dangerous at Skolimowski’s age of 72. “Never again,” he claimed with a smile.
Director Jerzy Skolimowski with Emmanuelle Seigner on set
Essential Killing is a story of an Afghan citizen suspected of terrorism, taken captive by Americans and transferred to Europe for interrogation. He escapes and finds himself a fugitive in the midst of a Polish winter, with his confused mind set on survival. While the film takes several indirect passes at the politics of the moment, it is far more existential and “mockumental” than it is political.
Essential Killing is difficult because it’s antiheroic. The antihero, Mohammed, played by Vincent Gallo, must remain on the edge of our emotional perception in order for us to feel contempt when he’s a predator and sympathy when he’s a victim. We have to like him enough to let him in, but never enough to let him stay, just as the deaf woman (played by Roman Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner) who helps him along the way.
The film is minimalist, quiet and yet intense. It offers silence but no solace, neither to the protagonist nor the viewer. Despite beautiful scenery and outstanding cinematography, it leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable and forced to review his/her assumptions about the essence of life.
Skolimowski’s quest to do an easy film may have failed, but he has given us one of the most physically evocative chase films in a long while. We can only hope that having found his voice again, he will continue to produce works of such exceptional quality.
Thomas Jankowski is an IT Consultant with an MA in Media and a BA in Literature. His company, QuasiLife, helps companies improve their bottom line through an effective application of new technologies and social media to business operations. He has also worked as a creative writer and a journalist, and still occasionally produces short works of fiction and film reviews.
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