Essential Killing is set to be one of the most successful films from a Polish of the past decade. Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, the picture won the Special Jury Prize at 2010's Venice Film Festival. Lead actor Vincent Gallo won the Festival's Volpi Cup.
The win was a surprise for the cast and crew of the film, as the picture is a controversial one. It tells the story of Mohammed (Vincent Gallo), a Taliban member captured in the desert by American forces, who finds himself transported to a nameless Eastern European country. He manages to escape into the vast frozen woodland, a world away from the desert home he knew. Forced into extreme survival mode, he must kill anyone who strays into his path. The film's stark treatment of the subject matter has a visceral effect on the viewer, challenging one's most deeply ingrained moral code and convictions about what is right and what is wrong.
Mohammed is treated like an animal - humiliated and beaten, hunted by dogs, hunted like wild game - he gradually becomes an animal, feeding on what he can scavenge in the snowy woods, killing all who stand in his way. On the other hand he is human enough to show humanity to once again become a man - a stranger, thrown in an unknown land, forced into contact with a foreign culture, but still human. The title of the film carries a double meaning, both referring to the 'essence' - the most primitive and primary basis of killing - and the 'essential' nature of killing in this context - whereupon killing is imperative to survival. There is an underlying reference too, to the fanatical killing of religious extremists.
Although Jerzy Skolimowski rejects comments that his film is political in its portrayal of the war in Afghanistan and secret CIA prisons allegedly scattered around the world. The political dimensions of the film are evident, however, according to Skolimowski, nature and the unbending laws of nature are also quite tangible elements of the film, as he explains:
Nature in this film is important for our hero and his alien status in the new, unfamiliar environment, which is the snow-covered forests of Europe. The landscape has a hand in creating the character and create his complex personality. It makes dialogue redundant. (...) Nature is an integral part of the film. The forest, animals which need to satisfy their hunger and compulsion to kill in the beautiful landscape. This is a story about man and nature. Wildlife is shown without sentimentality, but with all its splendor. It is an existential outsider journey to nowhere. But even if Mohammed were able to escape from his pursuers, how would he ever get home? Especially important for me is the scene in which Mohammed is woken by deer. His first instinct is to reach for his weapon, to kill. The animals are not afraid of him, however. They look at him with the same curiosity with which he looks at them. If they had belonged to the same species, shared the same fate, the same laws of nature would apply to both of them. It is a moment in which the hero realizes that he is part of a larger whole. He knows that he has failed to survive, but just then he sees the beauty of nature.
In late November 2010, the film won the main prize - the Astor de Oro - at the 25th International Film Festival in Mar del Plata in Argentina. Vincent Gallo also won the Best Actor prize for his role in the film.
- Essential Killing was shot in Poland, Israel, Norway and Ireland.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. Screenplay: Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska. Director of photography: Adam Sikora. Music: Paweł Mykietyn. Production design: Joanna Kaczyńska. Costumes: Anne Hamre. Editing: Réka Lemhényi, Maciej Pawliński. Sound: Robert Flanagan. Starring: Vincent Gallo (Mohammed), Emmanuelle Seigner (Margaret), Zach Cohen, Iftach Ofir, Nicolai Cleve Broch, David Price. Production: Skopia Film (Poland), Cylinder Productions (Norway), Element Pictures (Ireland), Mythberg Films (Hungary), Canal+ Polska (Poland), Syrena Films (Poland). Co-financed: Polish Film Institute, Task Films, Akson Studio, The Irish Film Board, The Norwegian Film Institute, MMKK, Eurimages.
Duration: 83 min. Distribution: Syrena Films.
Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, October 2010.
Translated by Roberto Galea, October 2010.