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Essential Killing (2010)

Monday, October 17th, 2011

“To those who like me — I’m back. And to those who don’t like me — I’m back.” — Jerzy Skolimowski, 2008

Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing (2010) is one the best films of the year, just getting a release in a very limited fashion in the United States as 2011 draws to a close. Earlier this year, I was interviewing the British director Michael Sarne, a friend of Skolimowski’s, and rather than talk about his own career, Sarne kept interrupting himself to urge me repeatedly, “you’ve got to see Essential Killing.” Now I can see why.

Vincent Gallo doesn’t speak a word in the film, yet is utterly convincing as Mohammed, a man captured by American forces in the desert of an unnamed country,  flown to an Eastern European country, also unnamed, and subjected to torture. We get brief glimpses of the action from Mohammed’s point of view; he can’t hear, and seems to be affected with tinnitus, so everything for him is just a constant, irritating ringing in his ears.

Mohammed escapes, and goes on the run, killing to survive, but in the end succumbs to a combination of the harsh climate, lack of food, and wounds suffered during his escape. Intercut with this are flashbacks of his earlier life, which seem simultaneously idyllic and mysterious. We never know why he’s been captured; we never know what crimes he may or may not have committed; all we see is Mohammed’s fight to survive in a hostile landscape.

The end result is a shattering experience, superbly directed by the 73 year old Skolimowski, who took 17 years off from directing to paint and act, before returning to film with Four Nights with Anna (Cztery noce z Anną) in 2008. Born in 1938 in Poland, Skolimowski was part of the Polish New Wave in the 1960s, with such landmark films as Identification Marks: None (Rysopis, 1964), Walkover (Walkower, 1965) and Barrier (Bariera, 1966), but these films are child’s play compared to this new work. A truly international film, shot in Poland, Norway, Ireland, and Hungary, Essential Killing is essentially a parable, rather than a political film, and remains very much an enigma throughout its compact 83 minute running time.

As Skolomowski said of the film in a recent interview, “I don’t even say whether the film starts in Afghanistan, Iraq or maybe some other place, whether it’s an American military base, where the prisoners are kept, whether it’s situated in any of those countries. I don’t say whether the plane which is landing somewhere in Europe is really landing in Szymany, in Poland. For a long time not even a word is spoken in Polish. Only later, in the second part of the film, we can hear parts of dialogues in Polish.

So, all this is very enigmatic, camouflaged, because it isn’t at all about any documentary truth. The film doesn’t describe any particular event. It is all fantasy. And it’s kept rather in the style of a poem or a fable which merely slides over some events which could possibly happen,  which most probably haven’t taken place, for we would probably know something about it; or maybe it was so strictly kept a secret that we will never find out. [. . .] That’s why I don’t treat this film as political.  I would rather call it poetical and I hope this is the way it will be perceived.”

See the trailer here; see the film as soon as you can.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him or his website,

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