September 25, 2011
Essential Killing (2010)
In Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing, as he did in Coppola's Tetro, Vincent Gallo handily subverts his own public persona by delivering a performance so remarkably sincere and dedicated that it achieves two things: it is a moving performance in its own right, and it's all the more so because it is Vincent Gallo who is giving it. The former feat intrinsically trumps the latter; Gallo won the Best Actor award in Venice, and it's not the first time he's deserved it.
The film is an efficient, single-minded thriller predicated on the human drive for survival. Skolimowksi claims that it is not a political film, and indeed any politicization is almost entirely circumstantial to that classic trick that narratives always have up their sleeve: give us a protagonist to follow and we'll go to great lengths to sympathize with him. As Skolimowski puts it, "politics is a dirty game and I don’t want to voice my opinions. What is important is that the man who runs away is returning to the state of a wild animal, who has to kill in order to survive."
That quote give credence to an idea that struck me as I was watching the film: Essential Killing is, perhaps accidentally, an adaptation of James Dickey's To The White Sea. That novel told the tale of a WWII bomber pilot who crash-lands in Tokyo during a fire bombing raid and fights his way North to the frozen island of Hokkaido, ruthlessly killing anyone he comes across out of sheer necessity. It's a tale of man lost in the wild, much like Dickey's Deliverance, but unlike that classic, man is not fighting against but seeking to become one with the prevailing elements. What Skolimowski gives us is a captured Taliban fighter whose prison convoy crashes while traversing a nameless European tundra. He is stripped of ideology and thrown like a newborn out into the wild, where he's forced to approach the same pragmatic primacy as Dickey's hero. In both works (and in the Coen's unproduced screenplay of Dickey's novel) the protagonist is essentially silent, never uttering a word as he reverts to a more native state. Dickey, of course, might have been suggesting that this reversion is something more like an ascension.
There's a sequence in the novel where the pilot hides on a train car bearing newly hewn logs and rides it across the country, falling into a naturalistic reverie as the wind rushes against him. Gallo's character hops a similar ride, stealing away atop a logging truck laden with fresh timber. Skolimowski's filmmaking doesn't strive for the same ecstatic heights as Dickey's prose - but then that truck delivers Gallo comes to a camp of loggers decimating a forest and depriving him of what has become his home and turning his cover against him when a fallen tree pins him to the ground. There's a shade here of grand sadness that goes beyond survival. It's there in the deep earthy sound of those ancient oaks coming down, the roots ripping up from the ground, and when Gallo subsequently turns his knife on one of the loggers, he's got the faintest hint of a different ideology guiding his hand.
Posted by David Lowery at September 25, 2011 4:09 AM