Now on DVD: more Skolimowski, deeper ends | Bleader

Now on DVD: more Skolimowski, deeper ends

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In my blog post about director Jerzy Skolimowski last Friday, I failed to mention that one of his best films, 2010’s Essential Killing, was recently released on DVD in the US. This is good news. Given its emphasis on snow and isolation, Essential is a perfect movie for winter—it’s also an ideal companion piece to Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, which opens this weekend. Both films are tales of survival set among snowy landscapes that grow into moody meditations on death: in an ideal movie culture, theaters would be showing them back-to-back.

Skolimowski’s landscape shots would look great on a big-screen projection, so it’s a shame that the film didn’t receive a theatrical release here. That’s not surprising, though, since Essential Killing is a blunt critique of the United States’s use of torture in its worldwide War on Terror. The film practically opens with the main character being tortured in an Abu Ghraib-like US black site, which the film depicts as hell on earth. Skolimowski cannily avoids divulging clues about the prisoner’s religious, ethnic, or national background (the character doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue), emphasizing how this inhumane treatment should not be suffered by anyone.

When I interviewed Skolimowski this past summer, he claimed not to consider himself a political person—he also said he didn’t consider Essential Killing a political work. Indeed, the film’s concerns are universal. After the prisoner improbably escapes from custody, he finds himself in the Polish wilderness in the middle of winter. Stranded in an alien landscape (“Imagine what it’s like,” Skolimowski said, “to have never seen snow before and then have to survive in it”), he’s reduced to little more than an animal. As the title forebodes, he must kill other human beings for essentials like food, clothing, and physical safety. The film is a potent consideration of what happens to a person who’s been stripped of his humanity.

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Yet Essential Killing is also beautiful, strange, and sometimes funny. Skolimowski shoots many of the landscapes from a serene distance, suggesting the influence of his second career as a painter (though Skolimowski denies this too). The film suggests, optimistically, that nature remains unaffected by the brutality of people, and that the prisoner’s return to nature is not an entirely negative thing. Throughout the film, Skolimowski associates the character with a single color (he wears an orange jumpsuit when he first enters the prison, and the snow suits he later steals from his victims are black and white), making him appear like a brushstroke on the canvas of the world.

Vincent Gallo plays the prisoner, and his performance is devoid of the egotism that marks many of his creative endeavors. Gallo makes the character’s suffering seem very real, yet he doesn’t wallow in it the way a movie star like Mel Gibson or Charlize Theron would. It’s great screen acting, as Gallo expressively uses his body to make it part of the film’s overall design. His work was awarded the Best Actor prize at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, one of the many distinctions Essential Killing received across Europe.

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