Essential Killing DVD Review
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A great performance, of a totally unknown persona...
Vincent Gallo stars as Mohammed, a prisoner of war who is taken to a Guantanamo style prison and tortured. But when the van transporting him through the wilds of Eastern Europe crashes, he makes his escape. What follows is an account of one man’s fight for survival as he struggles to flee as fast as possible through uncompromising weather and over impossibly harsh terrain.
Having only limited knowledge of both the director and the film’s central actor (the former an actor in Cronenberg’s great Eastern Promises, and the latter the famed director and star of that unsimulated scene with Chloe Sevigny in Buffalo 66) I came to this release with a very broad idea of what to expect. On the one hand it could have been a more brutal version of Liam Neeson action-fest Taken, with the war as a backdrop, but on the other I had a niggling sense that it would inevitably be something like Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. However, I haven’t actually seen either of those films. In the end, I suppose it must fall closer to Herzog’s movie than what I’m assuming is the absurd unreality of Taken, but who knows. Regardless, this is what I thought as a film enthusiast.
Since we are supposed to give a shit about what happens to Mohammed (who utters not a single word throughout) it might be useful not to show him blowing up three Allied soldiers at the start of the film. Does this indicate that he is a terrorist, or is he on the run due to mistaken identity? Unfortunately, we don’t know either way so when it comes to deciding whether we should cheer him on (so to speak) or hope that the next dog to sniff him out rips his face off, we are in the dark. The only glimpses we see of his former life are the occasional dream-like snippets of his wife; we see him commit no other dastardly terrorist deeds (this might detract from any concern we have for him), nor do we see a family man caring for those around him.
Therefore, for the length of this brief study of human resilience we are in a constant state of doubt as to whether we should vest any interest in the character and his story at all. As a result, this is the film’s biggest flaw. While we can acknowledge that Mohammed’s kills are indeed essential to ensure his survival, it seems that is all the film maker is telling us.
On the plus side, the film’s stark visuals and intense atmosphere work incredibly well to give the sense of our protagonist’s surroundings and frame of mind. Whether in the baking environment of the Asian desert - or the sub-zero rural landscapes of Europe - it genuinely feels as though Mohammed is battling impossible odds to survive. Gallo’s bearded performance is remarkable and the physicality that he brings to the role ring true but again, why should we care? Either he is a terrorist and we don’t want to see him survive, or he has been wrongly accused - in which case the director should have let us know. There are also some striking scenes of Mohammed desperately looking for sustenance, none more devastating than when he is reduced to drinking from a peasant lady’s breast or kicking open an ant’s nest because there is nothing else to eat.
Ultimately, a few memorable scenes, a great depiction of wilderness and a haunting atmosphere do not a great film make. There are just enough scenes of action and running to please those who enjoy war time films... of action and running... and the brief runtime will please those who don’t have the time or patience for films the length of the Pirates of the Caribbean snooze-athons. But, without a solid back-story, the film becomes nothing more than an empty portrait of a man running through snowy fields and forests. Overall, I was left worried by the fact that I didn’t care about the struggles of this individual and it is this lack of a connection with the audience that lets the film down.
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