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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Essential Killing

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski (2010)

Watching the final shot of Essential Killing, in which a pure white pony, streaked with blood, grazes a snowy hilltop, makes you wonder how this can be the same film that started 84 minutes earlier.

Then, it was a political thriller. Later, in the middle, it was a survivalist adventure, and now it’s a surreal visual poem. What happened there?

But Mohammed must feel similarly confused.

Mohammed (Vincent Gallo) is an Afghan fighter who is captured and tortured by the US occupation before making a flukey escape while being transported to – presumably – one of those American bases in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan.

He’s free, but in an alien, cold land, a different planet to the desert he’s come from.

Pursued through forests and over mountains by soldiers, helicopters and dogs, his greatest threat is hunger. He gnaws on tree bark, claws termites from their nest, munches hallucinogenic berries and shocks sensitive viewers by… well.

A peasant woman wobbles by on a bicycle, though we’re far from bicycle country here, it’s not at all a suitable form of transport, and inevitably she topples off. Finding herself suddenly recumbent on a verge, what’s a girl to do but suckle her baby.

This gives Mohammed ideas. It also gives the audience ideas. Surely he’s not… surely the director’s not… But he does. They do.

You wouldn’t catch Ray Mears stooping so low. Even Bear Grylls would think twice.

There is a similar scene in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! Except that Malcolm McDowell’s wet-nurse is far more complicit than this poor woman who faints as he lunges at her untapped breast.

This is, of course, a watershed scene in Essential Killing. It marks Mohammed’s ultimate degradation. (‘Woman on a Bicycle’ Klaudia Kaca couldn’t have found it too dignified, either.)

He’s already proved himself a ruthless killer in his struggle to survive. But at what point does killing, or something worse, cease to be justified as essential?

Judging by the title, that seems to be the question Polish director Skolimowski is asking. But just as he discarded any attempt at a political analysis of Mohammed’s situation after the early scenes, so he gets bored with the moral dilemma, too.

Mohammed, by now mortally wounded after a brush with a chainsaw, is taken in and shown pity by Margaret (Emmanuelle Seigner). She is mute, as Mohammed is effectively mute, having been torn from his native land and language. There is a wordless bond between the two, in a film with little dialogue but plenty of noise.

Skolimowski is working with sound as much as pictures. Earlier, Mohammed is interrogated loudly by a US officer. But he can’t hear, having been deafened by the explosion that brought him down. The sound system of the humvee he later commandeers blasts out heavy metal at painful volume, but he doesn’t, or can’t switch it off.

But what’s it all about? Is it any good? I haven’t a sodding clue.

April 15, 2011

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