Its nice to know that the “indie” & arthouse crowds are accepting films outside of the norm more and more these days. While stuff that you would except to get a standing ovation like; ‘Tree Of Life’, ‘Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall Our Past Lives’ and ‘Antichrist’ end up getting mixed reviews at best from the Cannes audiences, genre films like ‘Drive’ (a car chase/heist movie that won best director at Cannes just recently) and ‘Essential Killing’ (a politically fueled action film that not only won best actor at the Venice film festival, but also got a special jury prize) are the talk of the arthouse/indie/film fest circuit. Everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Jack Nicholson is calling ‘Essential Killing’ their favorite film of 2010. And after seeing it tonight at the museum of moving image (a place i cant believe i hadn’t been to until tonight), i have to agree that this film is surprisingly great. I mean, in the first 5 minutes, Vincent Gallo blows 3 guys up with a bazooka, then narrowly escapes being blown up by a missile. When a movie OPENS with that, you know you’re in for a treat.
I imagine people who only know Vincent Gallo for ‘Buffalo 66’ and ‘The Brown Bunny’ were scratching their heads upon seeing the trailer for ‘Essential Killing’ which saw a bloody Gallo running through the mountains, dodging explosions and being shot at. But if you’re a true fan of his work (like i am) and have followed his career, you’d know that this role isn’t too far fetched. I mean after all, he’s played everything from a scientist trapped on mars (‘stranded’) to a cross-dressing nut job (‘freeway 2’). He’s even dabbled in action before with ‘Truth Or Consequences NM’. So when you think about it, why would it be out of character for Gallo to take a stab at an action film in the vein of ‘Bourne Identity’ or even the more recent ‘Green Zone’? I will say that this had to be his most physically challenging role to date.
In ‘Essential Killing’, Vincent Gallo plays the lead character; “Mohammed”: An alleged terrorist on the run from an unnamed branch of the U.S. military. At no point in the film do we get in to the details of Mohammed’s apparent terrorist-doings because that’s not what the film is about. ‘Essential Killing’ is about survival. Mohammed, who is use to the warm climate and the desert, is wounded and on the run in the snowy mountains which is an environment that’s completely foreign to him. This forces Mohammed to go in to “survival mode”, killing whoever he has to (including some innocent people and a dog) in order to live and cover his tracks. I’d even go so far as to compare ‘Essential Killing’ to not only the Bourne movies or ‘The Green Zone’, but ‘Rambo: First Blood’ as well. Just like Stallone did in the first ‘Rambo’ movie, when Mohammed’s back is up against the wall and he’s completely outnumbered, he does what he has to do in order to survive. The title of the film is pretty fitting. Director Jerzy Skolimowski makes us feel that each time Mohammed kills someone its because he has no choice. And for an action film, ‘Essential Killing’ is more hypnotic and atmospheric at times than it is an “edge of your seat thriller” (but trust me, there are still many suspenseful parts). The use of nature is really awesome in the film too. I’m not sure if many people realized this about the film, but even though it seems like mother nature isn’t on Mohammed’s side, other times mother nature IS on his side and helps him stay alive. In one scene, a group of wild animals cause the truck hes being transported in with other terrorist suspects to crash, which allows him to escape. In another scene, when a military helicopter pilot has Mohammed locked in his sight, all of a sudden a mean gust of wind causes the helicopter to lose control.
Whats so cool about Gallo’s performance is that he’s mute through the entire film (due to an explosion at the beginning which leaves him deaf). Because the main character has no lines, this obviously has a huge impact on the dialogue of the entire film. That may not mean much to some of you, but for an actor who’s known to play a motormouth all the time, its pretty remarkable. I would say this is his best performance ever. I haven’t been this impressed by a mute performance since Samantha Morton in Woody Allen’s ‘Sweet and Lowdown’. Gallo is VERY believable in this. When he accidentally steps on a bear trap and gets his foot caught, the entire audience goes; “OWWW!” (or something along those lines) because they believed in his acting.
The political nature of the film may not sit well with some people. But at the same time, it may challenge others to think a little. Its pretty ballsy for Jerzy Skolimowski to make an antihero Terrorist character in a post-9/11 world. AND have that role played a white actor. I mean lets face it, Vincent Gallo doesn’t have any of those ambiguous Anthony Quinn/Victor Argo/Lou Diamond Phillips ethnic facial features. He’s pretty white. But he somehow pulls it off. I’m pretty sure a lot of Americans will have a tough time stomaching this (even though “Mohammed” has nothing to do with 9/11 or anything anti-American that we know of). I think this was partially the reason that Skolimowski cast a white American like Gallo (who he worked with before in Maki Kaurismaki’s ‘L.A. Without A Map’). And speaking of Gallo, it must have been strange for such an outspoken conservative republican (like Vincent Gallo claims to be) to play a role like this. I cant remember the last time a right wing or republican felt any sympathy for a terrorist (or ALLEGED terrorist as far as this film is concerned). And on a side note, I always find it interesting that any film with a slight hint of “anti-American-ism” or is critical of America in some way shape or form always seems to draw praise and win awards at world film festivals. Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’ (a film about an American high school shooting), Michael Moore’s ‘Farenheit 9/11’ (speaks for itself) and Von Trier’s ‘Dancer In The Dark’ make up 3 of the last decades palm d’or winners.
Normally, i prefer that when people discover a director, they start at the beginning. But in the case of ‘Essential Killing’, I wouldn’t mind if this was the entry point for people not too familiar with Jerzy Skolimowski. He’s a great filmmaker who co-wrote Roman Polanski’s first feature, was film school classmates with Milos Forman, and most recently played Naomi Watt’s cranky uncle in Cronenberg’s ‘Eastern Promises’. Skolimowski pleases just about every possible movie-goer with ‘Essential Killing’. There’s action, suspense, sad moments, and there’s even a few funny parts. Plus there’s a nice short appearance from “Mrs. Polanski”; Emmanuelle Seigner. After ‘13 Assassins’, this is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen so far this year. Apparently this is set to open in select theaters in August. Be sure to check it out if its playing near you.