By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist March 31, 2011 at 2:19AM
The name Vincent Gallo is a fairly divisive one. Just the very mention of it usually follows with an impassioned argument for or against the actor and certainly, he's done himself no favors. After breaking out in a big way with "Buffalo '66" the writer/actor/director/musician/sperm entrepreneur wasted no time in using any interview opportunity to slag off pretty much anyone and everyone. He followed up his gritty little indie with the infamous "The Brown Bunny," a road trip movie about a guy on a quest for a resentment filled blowjob. It was savaged by critics at Cannes and when it eventually arrived in a new edit, not even a climatic scene of explicit oral sex could get anyone to care.
The reason we mention all of this is that in Jerzy Skolimowski's "Essential Killing," your enjoyment of the film may depend on your tolerance for Gallo. He's in nearly every scene of the lean 80-odd minute movie, from start to finish. That being said, Gallo haters may be heartened to know that he actually doesn't say one word for the entire running time, and spends most of the film battered, bruised and weary. So if you ever wish Gallo had someone beat the shit out of him, well, this film might be your dream come true. But all of that out of the way, "Essential Killing" is a taut, nervy little number that doesn't mind pushing the buttons of the audience for a thrill, but also spills over into some outright absurd moments as well that weaken the blow Skolimowksi would have liked to deliver.
When the film opens we're in an unnamed country (that bears a striking resemblance to Afghanistan) and some American soliders are looking for IEDs it would seem. Skolimowski isn't big on realism here. We're not sure why three soliders -- one armed with a metal detector, the kind you might try to find treasure with on the beach -- are walking into vast canyons by themselves in hostile territory but you've got to let that slide a bit. Anyway, it isn't long before a bearded, unidentified man (Gallo) -- one we'd easily identify as a terrorist -- sets up shop in one of the crevices in the area the soldiers are searching and with one pull of the trigger, kills them all with a bazooka. The explosion draws the attention of a U.S. Army helicopter and pretty soon, enough troops to bring down -- well, an army -- swoop in and snatch up their man.
The next portion is about as close to a political statement Skolimowski makes with the film. The man is herded through the Army process for dealing with a suspected terrorist. With barking dogs, waterboarding and physical violence, the man enters a world of pain and it's fairly apparent that nothing he can say or do will get him out the situation. Just as things seem their most desperate, he is rounded up with fellow prisoners and put on a bus to get transported to another black site. However, on the way, the bus runs off the road trying to avoid hitting a pig (just the first sign of some of the absurdity to come) and rolls down a hill. Most wind up dead or re-captured and while Gallo's character makes it out, he's got some problems: it's the dead of winter, he's got no shoes or clothes and his hands are shackled.
From here, it's a race to survive and we won't spoil it by telling you what happens, but Gallo's character goes through a Job-like test of endurance at every corner. If he's not dodging soldiers than he's dealing with the brutally severe winter conditions and danger lurks at the crest of every hill or in between every tree. The masterstroke by Skolimowski is that he doesn't make it easy for the audience to root for the guy. There is a considerable body count and some brutal acts of savagery and desperation, but it's all in favor of a bigger looming question that's not really asked so much as suggested. If so-called developed nations, who espouse human rights and democracy, treat their detained suspects harshly, should they not expect those actions to come back to them tenfold? And while one could argue that Gallo's character is the agressor in the opening scene, the flip side to that argument could be that he's merely reacting to an invasion of his country. There are no cut and dry answers, and while Skolimowski doesn't spell it out, his portrayal of the soliders -- as large, loud, louts -- says pretty much everything you need to know about where he stands on the issue. With little in the way of dialogue from anyone in the film, the audience is left to simply witness the character's actions and form their opinion of what they see on screen.
However, not all of this works. Though Skolimowski isn't afraid to push his premise to its most brutal places, with a couple scenes sure to upset some of the more sensitive folks who might be watching, at other times the situations cross the line into the absurd. There is one scene involving a woman on a bike -- and that's all we'll say -- that had the audience we saw the film with laughing in both astonishment and disbelief instead of recognizing the scene as an act of desperation. And as the film wears on, it's one note conceit -- even with the very brief length of the film -- begins to drag on.
"Essential Killing" earned Gallo an acting prize at the Venice Film Festival as well as a Special Jury Prize for the movie. For Gallo, he nails his role, giving the plight of his character just enough nuance -- without speaking a word -- to keep him interesting even as the film begins to get repetitive. But the film itself, once you strip away the gimmicky setup, doesn't have much to support it. It's well acted, beautifully lensed by Adam Sikora and it's edited into a compact little presentation but it ultimately doesn't add up to much. The novelty of the concept doesn't linger too long after you leave the theater and there's not enough in it to find further depth in the proceedings. Skolimowski wants to play enigmatic with the audience, but he does so at the peril of his own film. "Essential Killing" might not be, uh, essential but it's a relentless cross country adventure with more than enough thrills to make it worth a peek. [B-]
"Essential Killing" opens in Canada and the U.K. on Friday, April 1st. It will hit VOD later this year via Tribeca Films in the U.S.