After his mostly well-received return to filmmaking with the intimate chamber piece “Four Nights With Anna,” Polish helmer Jerzy Skolimowski tackles a broader canvas with “Essential Killing,” an escape drama set almost entirely outdoors. Unfortunately, despite skillful assemblage, the script’s plausibility issues increasingly undermine engagement, even with the generous argument that the pic is a parable and operates according to more poetic laws of realism. Still, the topical political angle — the lead, played surprisingly convincingly by Vincent Gallo, is an Afghani prisoner transported to a secret Euro location — could help “Killing” break out in a limited way offshore.
After opening with spectacular helicopter footage of a jagged, mountainous desert landscape in what is presumably meant to be Afghanistan (the location used is actually near the Dead Sea in Israel), the action begins with some American contractors (Zach Cohen, Iftach Ofir) on a secret-ops exploratory mission. A wrong turn in a canyon brings them face to face with a frightened Taliban soldier (Gallo), with fatal consequences.
The Afghani (called Mohammed in the credits, but never actually named onscreen) is captured and brought to a U.S. military base for interrogation and waterboarding, although he doesn’t talk, perhaps because he’s simply unable to hear any questions after being temporarily deafened during capture. Soon after, he’s flown to an unknown location with several other orange-jumpsuited prisoners, but en route to the next detention camp, the truck swerves off the road and the protag escapes barefoot through a snowy forest.
With a strong assist from pro editing (by Reka Lemhenyi) and an ominously sparse, often atonal score by Pawel Mykietyn that blends deftly with the source soundscape, helmer/co-writer Skolimowski builds effective suspense initially over whether and how the protagonist will stay alive, warm and uncaptured in what turns out to be the Polish countryside. There are felicitous touches, such as the visual counterpoint of the earlier desert scenes with later footage of the winter-white expanses of the European terrain.
However, as the pic progresses and Mohammed keeps surviving serious injuries and scrapes, like some unholy cross between Rasputin and the Energizer Bunny, credibility is stretched to the breaking point. Flashbacks showing the protag in a mosque are perhaps meant to suggest that he’s blessed by God, but religious belief barely figures as an issue in this near-wordless film, just as politics and the U.S. military’s treatment of prisoners serve as little more than background context. Instead, Mohammed’s adventure seems to serve strictly as an illustration of how individuals will do anything necessary to survive (hence the title).
In a strong perf, Gallo looks suitably ragged, frightened and desperate throughout — and, per press notes, was up for doing at least some of his own stunts. The handful of Polish- and English-speaking thesps playing bit parts here, as well as Emmanuelle Seigner (as a mute woman who appears toward the end), are less significant as co-stars than the animals Mohammed encounters and the pic’s real star — its landscape.