Essential Killing -- Film Review

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VENICE -- Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, an icon of 1960s and '70s filmmaking, follows his recent "Four Nights With Anna" with "Essential Killing," an admirably crafted if sometimes tedious tale of an Afghan prisoner who escapes his U.S. captors and desperately struggles for survival in a remote northern wilderness.

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. But the film's underlying bleakness, bordering on hopelessness, and the repetitive nature of the story, which literally has nowhere to go, will make this Poland-Norway-Ireland-Hungary co-production a tough sell with audiences.

The film was co-executive produced by Jeremy Thomas, who worked with Skolimowski in 1978 on "The Shout."

In a dynamic opening sequence that should hook action fans, an American soldier escorts a pair of wisecracking civilians through a dramatic desert canyon while an Army helicopter monitors their progress. When they accidentally corner a frightened Afghan fighter (a heavily bearded Gallo) in a cave, he shoots and kills them.

The man soon is captured and, after refusing interrogation, is waterboarded in a graphic if brief torture scene. Hooded and handcuffed, he is flown with a planeful of Afghan prisoners to a snowy landing strip in the far north, where they are put on a truck. Before they reach their destination -- which presumably is a secret CIA prison -- the vehicle overturns in the dark and the Afghan finds himself free.

The rest of the film traces his frantic attempt to escape recapture and survive in the hostile wilderness, which at first seems like one huge, uninhabited pine forest. His first task is to escape the helicopter, search party and dogs sent after him, which he does with a gun and a clever trick. He then must find food and nurse wounds of varying gravity. Having been "forced" to kill again and again to survive, he breaks down psychologically only when hunger leads him to attack a passing woman.

The story calls for a certain amount of suspended disbelief about his real possibility for survival under Arctic conditions with a gamut of major wounds, the improbability of the tale contrasting starkly with the realistic shooting and editing.

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? At one point, he recalls an imam's voice encouraging men to fight, whether they like it or not, in the name of Allah. The casting of Gallo, instead of a less-familiar Arab actor, offers another inducement for Western viewers to side with the hunted man. But in any case, the political context that gives the film its strong topicality isn't the heart of the story, which plays out more as an adventure tale of man vs. nature.

Emmanuelle Seigner offers the one note of humanity as a farm woman who finds him unconscious on her doorstep and bandages his wounds.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production: Skopia Film, Cylinder Prods., Element Pictures, Mythberg Films
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner, Zach Cohen, Iftach Ofir, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Stig Frode Henriksen, David Price, Tracy Spencer Shipp, Klaudia Kaca, Dariusz Juzyszyn
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Screenwriters: Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska
Executive producers: Jeremy Thomas, Andrew Lowe
Producers: Ewa Piaskowska, Jerzy Skolimowski
Co-producers: Ingrid Lill Hogtun, Ed Guiney, Jozsef Berger
Director of photography: Adam Sikora
Production designer: Joanna Kaczynska
Music: Pawel Mykietyn
Costumes: Anne Hamre
Editor: Reka Lemhenyi
No rating, 83 minutes
Sales Agent: HanWay Films
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