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Essential Killing, Jerzy Skolimowski’s exercise in pure filmmaking, begins with a helicopter shot following three US soldiers on patrol. The parched, desert-like landscape, riven by gullies and canyons, could be Iraq or Afghanistan. They are on the hunt for the enemy, and soon find him. Portrayed by Vincent Gallo, he is a tribal soldier, bearded with a turban, who could be Taliban or Al Queda. What follows is a struggle for survival that can also be read as a desperate fight for freedom, and Skolimowski is very careful to avoid any prescriptive interpretation of his narrative.
No one is named in Essential Killing and there is virtually no dialogue as we follow the capture, incarceration and interrogation of a “terrorist,” who is swept into a military system that controls his every moment. Hooded and shackled, stripped of his clothes and clad in bright orange prisoner overalls, he is shaved, questioned, tortured and beaten before being transported by plane to an unknown destination – which could not provide a greater contrast to his native environment. It is winter, snow is everywhere and the landscape is immense.
After making his escape in a moment of confusion, the rest of the film follows his trek into the snow-clad forests, pursued by helicopters, soldiers and dogs. With no food or water, his journey is one of sheer survival and a spirited bid for freedom. Skolimowski follows the grim, often surprising and occasionally hallucinatory adventures of a man who refuses to die or give up. It could well be a parable of what NATO is confronting in the grim struggle for Afghanistan.
Skolimowski’s visual imagination is stretched to the fullest, with the sheer magnificence of the landscape providing a beautiful, silent backdrop to the character’s heroic battle to stay alive. In a harrowing performance that must have been immensely physically demanding role, Gallo conveys reservoirs of courage and determination without uttering a single word.