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Essential Killing

"Starring Vincent Gallo" wouldn't ordinarily be considered a sign of progress to a more nuanced view of the Afghanistan conflict

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Essential Killing

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A couple of years ago, a new edition of the Medal of Honor video game emerged for previews with an edgy new feature: the option of playing a Taliban fighter attacking American troops. Pundits and others concerned with American gamers taking the enemy side in a mock-up of ongoing combat protested; game company EA subbed the designation “opposing force” for “Taliban” in the game before its release. And now comes Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, in which aging art-house enfant terrible Vincent Gallo plays . . . a Taliban fighter, squaring off against Americans. “Starring Vincent Gallo” wouldn’t ordinarily be considered a sign of progress to a more nuanced view of the Afghanistan conflict, but Skolimowski’s film can’t be easily dismissed.

Never given a name or, in fact, any dialogue whatsoever, Gallo’s character blows up three Americans in the opening scene and is quickly captured and transported with other captives to an unnamed snowy Eastern European country, presumably for indeterminate holding at a so-called black site. But an accident allows Gallo’s character a chance to escape, putting him on the run—barefoot, at first—through unfamiliar frigid forest, thousands of miles from home, with squads of soldiers, dogs, and helicopters on his trail.

More reactionary American viewers will no doubt have a hard time with aspects of this film. Not only are a number of Americans/Westerners killed, but live Americans are typically portrayed as callous brutes fond of drugs and thudding bro metal—the kind of reductive villainizing that Islamic viewers of American films must be used to by now. Then again, the waterboarding scene makes American forces seem pretty unsympathetic with no cinematic license whatsoever. None of this would matter if Skolimowski (who also co-wrote) hadn’t crafted an existential action film rather than a polemic. From the moment Gallo’s character first spies Americans in a narrow desert canyon through to the film’s end on a snowy ridge, Essential Killing rarely stops moving, putting Gallo’s character into one brutal survival scenario after another. And he struggles ever forward, through pain and privation, despite the micron-thin chance he has of ever making it home. Gallo has never been particularly “likeable” onscreen, but “like” has nothing to do with his all-stops-out physical performance here as he embodies the pure human limitations of flesh and blood versus the will to overcome and stay alive, if only for another five minutes. It’s a performance, and a film, that you have to respect.

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