“Wrong way. Turn left for main route, then turn right.”
Being from Buffalo generally has a way of making people forgive Renaissance man Vincent Gallo’s abrasive nature and constant ability to put his foot firmly in mouth. His feature length works—Buffalo ‘66 and The Brown Bunny—are generally seen as love it/hate it types and his acting work has never been within films possessing wide appeal, save perhaps Tetro. In 2010, however, Gallo was finally awarded some of the praise hometown folks have been lauding for years. Performing a veritable one-man show for writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski in the Golden Lion nominated Essential Killing, the tumultuous actor not only saw the overall work win the ‘CinemAvvenire’ Award for best film at Venice, but also garnered the Volpi Cup for best actor himself. And it is well deserved, even if I had issues with the movie itself.
A taut thriller about a political prisoner’s escape in an unfamiliar land, Essential Killing is composed of many long stretches devoid of words in lieu of a pulse-pounding score and ambient sounds. Gallo’s Mohammed is Taliban, captured after killing three American officers in the deserts of Afghanistan to be waterboarded, flown to Europe, and transported via SUV through its wintery countryside. We do not know who he is or what he has done—ethereal cut scenes of dream-like memories and uncanny premonitions show a brighter time but never concrete details of the man removed from the his present fight for survival. But Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska haven’t written their script to achieve a three-act narrative with clearly articulated characters. They’ve created a human vessel to metaphorically show audiences the unbridled desire to live that lies dormant inside us all.
Interspersed with sweeping shots above the stark open-aired prisons of Mother Nature, the scope of Mohammed’s escape is never made light. We open on the wasteland of white sand swirling about cavernous crevices of rock, the heavy breathing and fright of Gallo enough to make us wonder whether he is a true threat or simply in the wrong place. Wrestling a grenade launcher away from a fallen comrade, he lies in wait for the obnoxious imbeciles sadly used to represent our American armed forces—the acting quality unfortunately leaving a lot to be desired once we move past the film’s star. Scared and hoping to remain unseen, if not for the shuffling of his body to loose a rock, Mohammed may have gone unnoticed and unscathed. Instead, the soldiers come to attention and prepare to advance his way. With the press of a trigger and the whoosh of an RPG, this unknown fighter is now a prisoner of war.
Skolimowski then gives us a stirring sequence of prisoner abuse that puts us into the head of this new captive. Claustrophobically peering out a small slit in the black bag over our heads, we watch the chaotic dance of soldiers and orange jump-suited terrorists with its mixture of yelling and defiant stares of silence. It’s crowded, the drone of a tone dying in our ears from an earlier explosion disorients, and we aren’t sure what will happen. The film’s title now plays its game of showing the extreme lack of morality in how a military is willing to conduct itself at war, the ‘essential’ activities they perform appearing to be anything but. Soldiers console their consciences by telling themselves it’s “us or them”, never letting the harsher reality seep into their one-track minds. They haven’t seen Mohammed’s fear as we have, they haven’t seen his necessity to kill before being killed himself. All they see is the enemy—a man who needs to be thrown into a cell and tortured before he returns the favor.
And thus we have the skewed dynamic of good versus evil, the film begging us to have compassion for a Taliban member. A freak accident on behalf of roaming boars frees him from a moving truck and a series of serendipitous events helps propel him forward with new clothes and new locales with which to hide in. He kills without remorse, but one can’t exactly blame him for his deeds. Surviving by any means possible, Skolimowski continues to show us his descent into a feral state of being. We are hit over the head often with gruesome exchanges, unforgivable acts of violence, and actions that would make the most excitable fan of “Fear Factor” cringe, but through it all is a feeling of hope to see this abused man make it out of the snow. It is too much at times—perhaps even laughable—and you do begin to cultivate a want for release from the dark abyss onscreen, shrugging your surrender to continually getting beat of the head.
The metaphor and political message are clear as we gaze upon this man lost amongst people who can’t be trusted. He can’t take the chance he’ll find a compassionate soul because one mistake means a one-way trip to Guantanamo and an existence begging for death. So we blindly forgive the film for never letting him try, accepting the fact he must shoot first and ask questions later as we align ourselves with his plight. It isn’t as easy as I’d like with shoddy performances hurting the authenticity to make us want Gallo to laugh from the absurdity of it all instead of cower in fear, but we make due. I would have enjoyed more esoteric passages of dream and perhaps a bit more clarity about his past, but the nicely nuanced finish with Emmanuelle Seigner’s Margaret and a white horse makes up for a lot. In the end it’s really all about seeing Gallo shine without the self-imposed constraints of ego overshadowing his work. Essential Killing may not be as good as the talk, but his performance definitely is.
 ESSENTIAL KILLING, Vincent Gallo, 2010. ph: Adam Sikora/©Tribeca Film
 ESSENTIAL KILLING, Emmanuelle Seigner, 2010. ©Syrena Films
 ESSENTIAL KILLING, 2010. ph: Adam Sikora/©Tribeca Film