In Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing, Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban fighter pursued across a snowy landscape by an evil looking helicopter that sounds threatening and looks like hovering death. His pursuers are Americans. After he blows several of them up with a bazooka, he is captured and transported to some imagined hellhole in a Russian-speaking region. But before he gets there, pigs intervene, and the truck he's riding in crashes. He escapes, kills more Americans, and hoofs it out of there into the snowy wilds.
The film is an extended pursuit directed with poetic precision and room for reflection. It feels, smells, and tastes like Figures in a Landscape, so I'm sure it was an influence, but it evolves into its own beast. Of course, it matters not that it burps up Figures for me because Figures remains in my mind an essential experience, an example of pure cinema, a relic of a bygone era in which everything was not explained, redemption wasn't obligatory, and villains were not black or white.
Filmed in Northern Norway, the snowy vistas are extraordinary and eerie, being both a refuge and a hell for our hero. So, is Gallo the film's hero? Is he heroic? Yes. Or should he be considered the villain and his American pursuers the heroes? Of course not. Gallo is the film's hero. The film is fresh because Gallo, a Taliban, IS the protagonist. It's his story. Clearly, he has his reasons for his actions (a deceased loved one is one of these, as is a war on his home soil), and the Americans have theirs. These days, the Taliban point of view is not one that's indulged often by filmmakers, so it's novel to see a character like this depicted as a flesh and blood man whose game is simple survival. Although the political context is thick by implication, Skolimowski doesn't fatten the film's narrative with politics. Instead, he constructs a contemplative action film, or action drama, with a pinpoint focus on Gallo's inventive attempts to stay alive in an icy wilderness. And Gallo, by the way, is superb in a physically difficult, non-verbal role.
There are plenty of modest joys to be be had here. In one scene, the hungry, emaciated Gallo comes across a nursing mother. Without hesitation, he drops to his knees and drinks milk from her nipple. Like the killing he's forced to do (the guy isn't some screaming sadist), his time at the woman's nipple is an essential act, a shot at extended sustenance. In another scene, he takes a fisherman's catch while the fisherman looks perplexed. If a bloke looking like Gallo staggered out of the wilderness to eat your breakfast, this is exactly how you'd react. Towards the film's conclusion, he takes refuge with a woman who risks her life to help him. The way in which their encounter is resolved affirms the essential humanity of them both while acknowledging the obvious risks.
I've read a few criticisms of the film's ending. What's to criticize? The ending is totally consistent with the rest of the film. It's lean. It makes its point, it moves on.
The (British) Artificial Eye Blu-Ray of Essential Killing boasts a breathtaking transfer and a great interview with director Skolimowski.