A turbaned desert-dweller (Vincent Gallo, giving a passionate and moving performance) kills 3 Western mercenaries who uncover his position. He is taken into custody and tortured (using “enhanced interrogation” techniques by gung-ho soldiers who nevertheless go by the book).
He is being transported through a snowy mountain pass when the van he’s in crashes. He escapes, but without shoes or winter clothes he eventually comes back to the convoy to surrender. Opportunity knocks — the two soldiers left at the site of the crash for him are deeply distracted. He risks an attack. It works, so he drives on in their SUV, then eventually escapes on foot.
For the duration of the movie, Gallo’s mute character tries to do two things: escape and survive. Desperately hungry, he tries eating bark and shriveled berries. One time he outsmarts the dogs sent to sniff him out. More often he escapes through luck and opportunism than through any particular skill on his part or incompetence on his pursuers’, which resonates with the film’s leveling view of humanity — none of us are heroes and nobody is exceptional.
The low point comes when he steals milk from a child — in the worst way possible. I almost dismissed the entire film, strangely engrossing as it is — at the shocking display. But Gallo’s character reacts with the same distress and disgust as me, and even more powerfully than I did, which just made me pity him all the more.
Writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski finds an ending when our escapee, now wounded and starving, finds a remote farm house with a solitary woman named Margaret. She can help a little and send him on his way with a horse.
Of all the films at Toronto in 2010, this one stayed with me the longest. The film is almost all wordless action, and the action is almost all survival. It punches you with the bleak desperation of starving in winter. Gallo’s performance is naked, evoking a mix of pity and shame, yet revealing the undeniable truth of man’s animal nature. It’s a frightening state to consider, and Essential Killing is uncomfortable to watch. It’s also memorable, powerful, and meaningful.