Friday, 1 April 2011

GFT programme note: Essential Killing

here's another article written for the GFT - no spoilers this time either

Though its title may suggest a direct-to-DVD action spectacular – the sort of bottom-shelf fare which invariably stars an ex-wrestler or Steven Seagal as a retired cop/military veteran/concerned citizen, battling drug cartels, corrupt politicians, or some other indisputably villainous ‘baddie’ – Essential Killing is an altogether more ambiguous tale. Even the title is evasive on inspection: as the mute protagonist (identified as Mohammed in the closing credits) endures increasingly harsh conditions, ‘killing’ is imperative – kill or be killed – but also fundamental and elemental, with survival at all costs depicted as animalistic yet natural.

In recent interviews, director Jerzy Skolimowski has been keen to downplay politics, summarising Essential Killing’s plot as about, quite simply, “a man in chains, who runs away barefoot through the snow into the wild forest”.[1] Notably absent from such a condensed synopsis is the reason for the manacles, and Skolimowski strategically ensures that relatively little can be said with certainty on this matter. The film opens with a trio of Americans traversing a desert landscape; the former presumably a soldier leading two civilian contractors, the latter apparently Afghanistan. Armed with a rocket launcher, Mohammed fires on and kills the approaching strangers, and is almost immediately captured by other soldiers circling overhead in a helicopter. Subject to violent examination, humiliation and waterboarding, Mohammed is transported to Europe, presumably (there’s that uncertain qualifier again) for further interrogation. It is during the ‘rendition’ that the opportunity to escape presents itself: the truck crashes, and Mohammed flees into the surrounding Polish woodland, where his ordeal intensifies.

The practice of ‘rendering’ suspected terrorists and ‘enemy combatants’ to secret ‘black site’ prisons across North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe (it has been alleged that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the ‘mastermind’ behind the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, was held in Poland)[2] has been a hugely controversial element of the Bush administration-led War on Terror. But if Essential Killing’s economical setup implies an overtly political agenda, the reality is somewhat different. For Skolimowski, the introduction is merely a means to an end – a prologue that serves to place his protagonist far from home, on the run in an unusual and dangerous environment – and he has implied that any number of possible events could have conceivably instigated this scenario.[3]

The attempt to sit out-with politics, particularly when handling such a hot potato subject matter, is, however, arguably unworkable. Mohammed acts out of instinctual self-preservation: in the opening, he is literally backed into a corner, his panic making the attack appear expedient rather than premeditated. Following the explosion, Mohammed is left disorientated and near-deaf, his confused point of view shared by the audience; the soundtrack is distorted and muffled, and his unresponsiveness to barked questioning seems less the recalcitrance of a defiant jihadi warrior, and more the cumulative effect of shock, sensory impairment and a possible language barrier. His actions – both in Afghanistan and in Poland – are presented as acts of desperation rather than ideological warfare or criminal psychosis; he kills, it is implied, because he has no other choice. From this, a political statement could be extracted and extrapolated, with Mohammed interpreted as metonymic of the way political violence takes root more broadly. Nonetheless, it remains fair to say that polemic is not Skolimowski’s primary interest. When accused of glorifying the Taliban following an early screening (a charge presumably agitated by the film’s constantly fluctuating sympathies), Skolimowski suggested his objective was, rather, a meditation on human nature. “For me, it could just as well be a completely innocent man who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time”, he argued,[4] and though the frequency with which this particular wrong man finds himself in a succession of wrong places might test credibility – breathlessly lurching from one set-piece to another, he contends with dog attacks, bear-traps, falling trees and more – it bolsters claims of a carefully maintained moral equivocality.

In support of such political and moral ambivalence, a structural ambiguity also emerges as Mohammed grows increasingly fatigued, with flashbacks and visions mingling with flash-forwards and prophecies. Furthermore, there is geographical uncertainty, the evasive topography of the two main locales underscored by the production itself, with Israel standing in for Afghanistan and, less expectedly (considering Skolimowski’s stated intention to shoot close to home), Norway for Poland. While the two locations are contrasted visually (white woodland against bright canyons), they are comparably stark, one unforgiving environment replaced by another, less familiar, wilderness.

Yet for all its evasiveness, Essential Killing does evidence a certain affinity with the Seagal-starring schlock evoked by its title, with its trajectory relatively straightforward and its pace clipped. Its resemblance to mainstream genres such as the survivalist drama and the action-thriller does more to dissipate any political edge than Skolimowski’s various proclamations on the matter, emphasising entertainment over didacticism. The refusal to engage directly with the issues applied here only as veneer may frustrate some, but its commitment to questioning assumptions and testing empathy is distinctively realised.

Christopher Buckle
Researcher and freelance writer
The University of Glasgow
March 2011

[1] Tom Dawson (2011) ‘Polish director, writer and actor Jerzy Skolimowski on new film Essential KillingThe List accessed at

[2] Steve Swann (2010) ‘CIA ‘tortured suspects’ in secret prison in Poland’ accessed at

[4] Author Unknown (2010) ‘Essential Killing does not glorify Taliban, says director’ accessed at

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