ETERNAL EXILE Vincent Gallo is a Taliban fighter on the run in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing.
If Jerzy Skolimowski wanted to return to the days of the Anglophone success he enjoyed three decades ago with his brilliant Moonlighting (1982; June 10 @ 7 pm), he couldn't have chosen a less likely premise than that of his Essential Killing (2010; June 11@ 7 pm). Vincent Gallo plays an apparent Taliban fighter who escapes from Allied custody and bumps off numerous dumb-ass American troops in his flight to freedom. A tough sell for the US market, especially given the renewed patriotism brought about by the killing of Osama bin Laden. It will be showing as part of "The Radical Visions of Jerzy Skolimowski," a retrospective of his work at the Harvard Film Archive, and the director will be on hand after the screening for what should be a spirited Q&A.
Too bad about that ideological alienation effect, however, because once it's overcome, this proves to be one of Skolimowski's best films, and certainly one of his most accessible. The narrative dynamic is even simpler than that of the 1993 Harrison Ford vehicle TheFugitive, since it's almost entirely devoid of names, backstory, or dialogue.
Unfortunately, the film doesn't take long to start putting people off. Its opening scene shows American forces pursuing a bearded, desperate figure (Gallo). A helicopter buzzes him above the desolate terrain while agents on the ground stumble along behind, smoking cigarettes, joking about the stock market, gasping for breath. Such Western decadence! Later, deafened by the explosion that resulted in his capture, the fugitive is interrogated by an American officer who bellows furiously in his face, not a word of which is audible. Then follows the usual drill of humiliation, waterboarding, and extraordinary rendition to what seems to be a secret prison camp in Poland.
Then an improbable plot twist frees the prisoner, and he flees into a white winter landscape as inhumanly beautiful as the barren rocks of before. The political distinctions blur even as the story simplifies into an existential, near-surreal struggle for survival, one reminiscent of such other forays into the genre as Robert Enrico's short "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1962) and Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn (2006).
Gallo's anguished, wordless desperado takes on a Christ-like pathos when he's not dispatching people with a chainsaw, or lapsing into sun-blasted memories of prayers chanted for holy war and a woman in an azure chador holding a baby. In a fleeting, tender moment, he makes human contact, a sequence recalling Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937). And in a moment of grandeur, a white steed appears, like the one in Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds (1958).
The white horse is a symbol of Polish independence, and in many ways Essential Killing is an extreme variation on Skolimowski's other films of exile. Such alienation can occur even in one's own homeland, as it does in the early Skolimowski films Barrier (1966; June 3 @ 9 pm) and Hands Up! (June 10 @ 9 pm). The latter was banned by Poland's then Communist government in 1967, an act that resulted in Skolimowski's repatriating to Britain. (He released Hands Up! with new material in 1981.)
But closest in spirit to the new film is Moonlighting. There, the beleaguered outsiders are a crew of illegal Polish workers in London and their leader (a melancholy Jeremy Irons). Like Gallo's escapee, they face hostility and isolation, and they're marooned by political forces beyond their control. The killing may be essential in the new film, but the powerlessness and the tragedy are the same in them all.