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.
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.