Amongst film buffs, “Essential Killing” should hold the same anticipation as a “Transformers” sequel does for the general masses with an identical pleasure to be derived from both. There’s not only the promise of a rare Vincent Gallo performance, but of an even rarer directorial outing from Andrzej Wadja and Roman Polanski compatriot Jerzy Skolimoski, their sensibilities crashing into each other with the ferocity of giant pieces of wrought steel. In the twilight of summer, it’s a film about braving the elements in the dead of winter and somehow its release now seems oddly fitting.
The premiere of “Essential Killing” on video-on-demand may not seem quite as snug, but then again, having Gallo take on the role of a silent, nameless member of the Taliban who breaks free from an Abu Ghraib-style prison camp isn’t exactly the type of film that’s an easy sell for American distributors. The fact that he later orders a mother to breastfeed him at gunpoint and whimpers when he gets his foot stuck in a bear trap probably didn’t help matters, but of course these are also the things that make it nearly impossible to look away from as Skolimoski takes us through the unforgiving Polish countryside with the whir of pursuing helicopters forever in the background.
Gallo’s prisoner eludes capture more than once, not necessarily by the virtue of his wits, but because of a movie-type mix of luck and sheer will, a fair analogy for the charms of “Essential Killing” itself. Surprisingly straightforward as a narrative, if frustratingly implausible at times, the film lunges forward at a pace leisurely enough to admire Adam Sikora’s majestic cinematography but also intensely enough to invest the chase, even when it’s obvious the only thing following Gallo’s prisoner is his own demons. In Skolimoski’s view, this is not to be confused with being demonized – the drive to stay alive supersedes any judgment one might have for the fugitive’s motives or past actions and besides a few visions the character has, alluding to possible religious beliefs, he remains an enigma.
It’s the unknown that pushes “Essential Killing” forward, part of which is obviously by design, but on a purely superficial level could also very well have to do with the fact that both the lead and the director have stayed out of the spotlight in recent years. Gallo is as inscrutable as ever, game to do such things as eating ants and let his piercing eyes do the acting, exuding a fearlessness that is the pulse of the film, even if it’s absent a beating heart.
Humanity isn’t tested here, but rather the human spirit and after taking a 17-year break before returning with 2008’s warm-up “Four Nights With Anna,” Skolimoski seems to have recalibrated his eye and ear in particular to make a film that’s tense while giving no indication of how it would like you to feel. As a result, there may not be much relief to be found in “Essential Killing,” but certainly it is refreshing.