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Venice and TIFF 2010. Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Essential Killing”

"There is not a moment of respite for viewers in Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski's 83-minute-long political thriller Essential Killing, full of blood and wild nature," writes Camillo de Marco for Cineuropa. This "is a full-on indictment of imperialism, military violence and religious wars."

"Vincent Gallo plays an Afghanistan soldier captured by US forces and sent to a Guantanamo-like detention center in an unspecified eastern European country," explains Guy Lodge at In Contention. "[E]scaping into vast, unfamiliar snow-blanketed terrain, he must, as the title implies, do whatever it takes to survive. None of the increasingly (and needlessly) grisly killings, however, are likely to stir as much discussion as a truly repulsive attack on a nursing mother that is perhaps best left to the imagination. Even this, perhaps, is less objectionable than heavy-handed flashbacks to the character's home life that have the presumably counter-intentional effect of mysticizing Islam; coming from the usually thoughtful Skolimowski, this is the breed of idle political filmmaking that protests on behalf of a side it doesn't make much effort to understand." All in all: "Cold Mountain gone Taliban, and less fun than that sounds."

"There are felicitous touches, such as the visual counterpoint of the earlier desert scenes with later footage of the winter-white expanses of the European terrain," writes Leslie Felperin in Variety. "Gallo looks suitably ragged, frightened and desperate throughout — and, per press notes, was up for doing at least some of his own stunts. The handful of Polish- and English-speaking thesps playing bit parts here, as well as Emmanuelle Seigner (as a mute woman who appears toward the end), are less significant as co-stars than the animals Mohammed encounters and the pic's real star — its landscape."

"It's a savage film. It plays on our notions of good and evil as well as making a strong — if simplistic — case for violence being unjustifiable and horrific as a means of survival or revenge," writes David Jenkins for Time Out London. "Witnessing how brutally the US troops initially treat Gallo makes it easier to see him as a victim, but as his instinct for survival enters overdrive — including some nasty business with lumberjacks and a buzz-saw — our sympathy transforms into something more ambiguous. At 83 minutes, the frenzied pacing means the film doesn't outstay its welcome, though the final scenes appear to be building to something big, which never materialises. It's refreshing to watch Gallo in a role which doesn't ask him to spend the entire time whining or arguing. His petrified performance could even earn him an award."


Eugenio Renzi gives Essential Killing a 9.0, which is one hell of high grade for Independencia.

Updates, 9/9: "Jerzy Skolimowski, an icon of 1960s and 70s filmmaking, follows his recent Four Nights With Anna with Essential Killing," begins Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "Vincent Gallo, who says not a single word in the film, invests the main character with deep-seated desperation in a performance that will win kudos.... The viewer is left free to view the man as a Taliban terrorist or just a poor conscript who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Certainly he leaves a wake of death behind him, which the title refers to as 'essential killing' — but is it?"

For Todd McCarthy, "the violent perversity of some of the man's actions throws things off to an extent and, ultimately, Skolimowski's bag of narrative tricks is not ample enough to fill out even the brief running time. As an exercise it holds the interest, but Gallo's fugitive remains little more than a figure in a landscape."

"The Polish director has said this is not a political film, and it is all the stronger for its starkness and reserve," writes Roderick Conway Morris in the International Herald Tribune. "But this brilliantly directed and shot, compelling chase movie is by no means lacking in political and human implications."

Update, 9/14: Essential Killing "sacrifices any plausible Arab masculine psychology in the name of shocking images (one toward the end is a travesty) and needless murder without cause or honor, all of which leaves a nasty, right-wing taste in my mouth," writes Michael Sicinski in a dispatch to Cargo. "The film wants to be 'above' politics, just looking at a vulnerable body apart from such considerations. But this caesura merely let ideology come flooding back in."

Updates, 9/16: "What makes this performance so mesmerizing when — face it — so much of what Gallo does is just patently annoying?" asks Stephanie Zacharek in Movieline. "Perhaps because he doesn't speak in the film, much of his energy is forced into his limbs and into the trunk of his body, and it has a lot to say, even in the context of its dogged exhaustion. This is a striking, primal performance, and maybe it's an example of what can happen when a filmmaker takes one of an actor's essential tools — his voice — away and pushes his focus elsewhere. Gallo has a reputation for being self-aggrandizing and annoying as a personality, but this performance overrides and whites out any personality quirks. In Essential Killing, he's confounding and surprising, challenging everything we think we know about Vincent Gallo. In other words, he does what we always say we want actors to do, and what we don't always allow them to do."


"Gallo gives a purely physical performance that, in the picture's pockmarks of baleful humor, has something of a silent clown's wariness," writes Fernando F Croce at the House Next Door. "Arguably the most abstract chase film since Joseph Losey's Figures in the Landscape, this is a furious, pared-down parable enriched by the Polish director's sardonic understanding of man's desperation forever alternating between prey and predator."

For indieWIRE's Eric Kohn, Essential Killing "amounts to a provocative doodle."

"As brutal as it is, Essential Killing is clearly an entertainment, and a surprisingly mindless entertainment at that," writes Reverse Shot's Michael Koresky. "Right from the beginning, when the camera adopts Mohammed's POV as he skulks around a cave before detonating a rocket launcher on some American troops, it's clear we're in Predator territory here, with a patina of political topicality laid over the thing... While watching inarticulate Gallo rampage through the snowy forest, one might wonder if we've actually wandered into a showing of the Wolverine origins movie."

Update, 9/18: "Mr Skolimowski might have wanted to criticize America's current wars or create a timeless story of survival," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "but it's hard to see his meaning through the absurdities. Whatever the case, his decision to set this story in the kind of woods in which innumerable Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and to burden it with Christian allusions — like some saints, the Afghani rides a white horse — is a calculated offense."

Update, 9/20: "Skolimowski, who began his career as an auteur 50 years ago and has directed exemplary films in Polish (Barrier), French (Le Départ) and English (Deep End), doesn't seem to care if viewers are sympathetic to Mohammed," writes Mary Corliss for Time. "He wants them to feel the chill of mortality, which can be forestalled only by extreme measures. If survival is essential in a time of war, says this bleak, powerful film, so is killing."

Coverage of the coverage: Venice and Toronto 2010. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

I’m loving these Venice updates David. Thanks for the great work! These will prove invaluable once the films are available to view for those of us who can’t make it to the festivals. Granted, that might not be for another year or longer in some cases, but I guess we non-jetsetters will have to settle for what we can get.
“Even this, perhaps, is less objectionable than heavy-handed flashbacks to the character’s home life that have the presumably counter-intentional effect of mysticizing Islam; coming from the usually thoughtful Skolimowski, this is the breed of idle political filmmaking that protests on behalf of a side it doesn’t make much effort to understand.” So much to unpack here that I don’t know where to start. Lodge’s politics are hanging out the back of his pants like a stream of dirty toilet paper. Did BEHIND ENEMY LINES or the numerous other films dealing with the American side of the current war do a thorough job of understanding it’s subject? Probably not. That’s because they didn’t have to, right? But a filmmaker can’t use shorthand when portraying someone of the Islamic faith? Everything needs to be explicated?
Thanks for compiling these differing views. Seems quite an ink blot of a movie with such opposing opinions. I guess to be expected to a degree when a film leaves so much undefined and ambiguous but still interesting to see the subjectivity people project into that vacuum: the Cargo dispatch complaining of “a nasty, right-wing taste” while right wing pundits condemn it as “leftist” (in the Polish press and the reactionary US rexreport) and some call it “relentless” while other complain of it being too static. I do feel there’s a bit of petulant sense of betrayal that Skolimowski would step outside of the art film bounds of his earlier movies in Guy Lodge’s and Michael Sicinski’s reviews – to the point where Sicinski says he needs to “reconsidering my admiration for Four Nights with Anna”. Lodge seems like he can’t get past the violence which I can’t say is wrong but seems down to personal taste. I, for one, am glad to see Skolimowski continue to experiment. And, of course, people come in with such strong preconceptions about Vincent Gallo.
Re: Manohla Dargis’ NY Times criticism, “to set this story in the kind of woods in which innumerable Jews were murdered during the Holocaust… …is a calculated offense” strikes me as absurd; to see the entire history of the region only through the holocaust is myopic – that part of history should not be forgotten and it should also be remembered that many different peoples have been hunted and killed in the forests of Eastern Europe (by many different aggressors) over the past 1000+ years. There being black-sites in Eastern Europe being common knowledge, the setting makes sense in the context of the scenario.
““to set this story in the kind of woods in which innumerable Jews were murdered during the Holocaust… " – this man is an idiot, Polish Mazury is a beautifull region where people spend holidays. Holocaust? Yes there was some of many places where german soldiers was killing people. But a few years ago there REALLY was secret CIA prison in Szymany (name of village). Special Comission of European Parliament tried to find something to prove it for many years but invastigation is still not finshed. That because of our polish politics don’t cooperate enough. Of course they can’t tell the truth (except non official comments) becuase that kind of help for US goverment was illegal. But even children in Poland know where was “secret” CIA prison in Poland. So Skolimowski placed action of film in right place. I can’t understand stupid man who think: forests of Mazury = Holacaust, Berlin = Hitler… New York = WTC. http://essentialkilling.net/ – my english version of site about film Essential Killing (polish .pl). Sorry for my english, :-)

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