In the ’70s and early ’80s, Polish-born director Jerzy Skolimowski created a run of films – Deep End, The Shout, Moonlighting – that marked him out as a spiky, original talent to set alongside his friend and compatriot roman Polanski (whose debut feature Knife In The Water he co-scripted).
But after 1985’s The Lightship he seemed to drop off the map. Essential Killing should place him firmly back on it.
At its heart is a tour de force performance from Vincent Gallo as a man on the run in a hostile landscape. Rarely off-screen, and with not a single word of dialogue, Mohammed (as he’s identified in the credits) is a bearded Islamic fighter captured somewhere hot and rocky by the Americans and taken to a secret detention centre in snowbound Eastern Europe.
En route the van he’s held in overturns on an icy road and he escapes. From then we follow Mohammed, stranger in a strange land, as he resorts to increasingly desperate measures to stay ahead of his pursuers.
His flight is clearly futile: even if he escapes them, where’s he going to go? But a stubborn instinct for freedom and survival drives him on.
This is minimalist filmmaking at its most austere and effective. We get nothing of Mohammed’s backstory: presumably he’s Taliban and was captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan, though even that’s left open.
We see him being waterboarded by his American captors, but the scene’s presented dispassionately, as are the killings that Mohammed carries out while on the run: Skolimowski isn’t out to make propaganda or enlist our sympathies. He’s just interested in exploring what a human being will do to survive under the most extreme conditions.
Given the intensity of the storytelling, occasional slips in plot logic hardly matter. Essential Killing picked up the special Jury Prize at Venice, with a Best actor award for Gallo. Two gongs thoroughly deserved.
Intense, pared-down and single-minded, Essential Killing presents the fight for survival at its most elemental. An impressive comeback from a highly individual filmmaker.