Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Essential Killing

"Essential Killing" has the same problem that "127 Hours" had: it doesn't sufficiently re-create, for the audience, the experience of the main character of the film. Instead of staying mostly within the realm of first-person shots and close-ups, Jerzy Skolimowski throws in far ones. He also breaks perspective a number of times, which even Danny Boyle avoided. These things add up to detract a lot from the film's impact. There are only a couple of scenes where the desired effect is created.

The film, which apparently was the only film to ever win multiple awards at the Venice Film Festival, keeps an admirably contained narrative focus following a man (Vincent Gallo), whom the audience assumes is some sort of extremist, who kills prospectors in a cave in the Middle East and is taken to an American prison (meant to evoke Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, what with its dogs, rampant insulting of "foreigners," and, as has been noted, water-boarding). When he's being carried between jails, pigs in the road cause for a pileup and for the man's truck to swerve off of the road. He gets away, hiding before killing the driver of one of the trucks and moving out from there. Which is not too far, as he's forced to abandon the truck and run without heed into (as Skolimowski himself noted) a wintry climate unknown to him.

The rest of the plot can be easily summarized, so I will refrain from doing so. I will address (and agree with) the speculation, though, that there are appalling scenes in the film. There is one in particular, that is maybe made even more abhorrent in how it is entirely self-contained. I understand it on some level, but it's still pretty despicable. This is when the character, when he sees a woman with her baby lying on the ice after falling off of a bike, holds them at gunpoint while he sucks breast-milk from her bosom. He then runs away, leaving her brutalized and unconscious on the ground, as authorities are heard in the distance. Sure, he does have moral qualms about this afterwards, but I don't think that's enough to account for it.

Skolimowski, who considers this his greatest work, got into an amusing back-and-forth with pissed-off audience members at the screening I went to. They accused him of both "glorifying the Taliban" and using unwarranted symbolism. He denied both, adamant in saying that the main character is a "civilian" and that the end shot (treated in a way I hated) was done because it was "a nice image." I found these responses incredibly coy and disrespecting of the audience's intelligence. To name the main character Mohammed shouldn't create an immediate connection to fanaticism, but I think Skolimowski was asking for it. I personally found a woman's thoughts that the film was about "mistaken ideology" a la "Four Lions" and, to use her example, "Das Boot," the most valid approach.

It must be said that Gallo is excellent or close to it in the lead, though, dropping every shred of his swagger, not talking at all throughout the whole film. His taking of Best Actor at Venice was merited. The film's Special Jury Prize win, though, I'm not quite sure about. C


Anonymous said...

I thought the film significantly better than a C but then I did not have a problem feeling the experience of the main character. I thought the far shots important for conveying the vastness of the settings so I didn't find this a distraction. I also saw the scene with the woman as fitting within the context but it is shocking and does divide viewers. Shocking, yes, but calling it "despicable" seems overwrought to me. I can't help but juxtaposition this against there being two rapes in his Four Nights with Anna and that seeming a non-issue. Interesting that this is so much more provocative.

I didn't see this at the same screening as the author (I saw it in Europe) so I didn't witness the interactions written about. I am kind of disappointed to hear about him advocating that the character was a civilian when I thought a big part of the appeal was precisely that it was ambiguous and the viewer was free to attach their own positive or negative interpretations to it -- be it glorifying a Taliban member with "mistaken ideology" or sympathizing with an Innocent person who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and killed at the beginning only as he was cornered. I liked that he was not dressed in the black robes that would have more clearly implied him being a Talib just as I liked how his not speaking leaves his identity unresolved. Anyway, I think Skolimowski would have done better to be consistent and not advocate any particular reading as it sounds like he put a lot of effort into making it ambiguous in the first place so it sounds like a bit of defensive back-peddling. Similarly, just as with a painter, I think he must have been aware, even if subconsciously, of the symbolic implications of the ending image. I also differ from the writer in that I liked it.

Nick Duval said...

Anon - I liked the final image as you did, but the fadeout of it I found frankly awful.

The "far shots" I were referring to were more the shots 50 feet away that followed close enough to be regular shots but broke the lock that the film had on the viewer. I had minor problems with the POV shots, but they were a lot better handled then most others. The crane/helicopter shots were helpful in "conveying the vastness of the settings" but they were a perspective break. Skolimowski, by doing this, never goes all the way and tries to make us identify with the character. Maybe he was really afraid of "glorifying the Taliban."

He did say he left certain parts open to interpretation, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't referring to the political designations, more the fate of the character at the end. It was a pretty crappy Q&A, if you ask me. He answered the question I asked pretty rudely.

I may be going a little too far in my thoughts about that gunpoint scene, but the way it's completely cut off from the rest of the film somewhat denies any sort of ethical catharsis IMO.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Nick,

I did misunderstand on the ending. I don't completely recall the fadeout specifically -- just the horse walking to the side then fading and the credits?

Also took the "far shots" to be the helicopter and crane shots.

Sorry to hear about the Q&A. As I said, I found a big part of the appeal that it seemed designed to be open to very different interpretations. Would have much preferred to here him say that it was fine to view it as "glorifying the Taliban" but to be aware that that was not the only possible interpretation. It sounds like he's probably trying to ratchet back just how much is open to interpretation. Curious what you asked... he does seem gruff.

I know the gunpoint scene being divisive and some people walked out at the screening I was at during that scene. Something I've never seen in a movie before. At least not at gunpoint. Still, I could see it fitting the storyline and the characters desperation and regression.

Not a movie to everyone's taste to be sure though I liked it a lot as I have most of his movies.


Anonymous said...

meant "hear" not "here"...