'Essential Killing' Review: A Republican Plays a Jihadist!?

Come one! Come all! See Vincent Gallo feeding off an actual lactating woman! See him run through the snow barefoot! See him ... well, see him play a terrorist named Mohammed run from the U.S. military and be degraded down to his most animal instincts in order to survive.

"Essential Killing," available now via Video on Demand services as well as iTunes and Vudu, follows a Taliban fighter named Mohammed who is captured by U.S. military forces and transported to Europe where he escapes and goes on the run. While evading his captors, he must do what is necessary to survive, including taking life, which we graphically witness beforehand in the film when he kills some private contractors with an RPG.

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It comes as no surprise that Hollywood would provide us with a story about the Afghanistan war that is from the point of view of a terrorist. I'm sure liberal after liberal would argue he is an "enemy combatant" and is justified in his killings. Political correctness aside, we witness him murder private contractors and then later murder more people. He's a terrorist, no matter what the been-in-college-too-long-and-stay-up-too-late-watching-Jon-Stewart types would have anyone believe.

Why would we want to watch a movie where the protagonist is a terrorist? Well, we wouldn't. But using the word "protagonist" here is a bit of a stretch. Sure, Mohammed is the main character, but there seems to be no attempt to make us identify with him, which is a relief. Instead, the film looks on its own events without much investment or insight. The camera is neutral. We are simply witnessing what is happening. But, hence comes the film's fatal flaw. Without investment, what point is there in watching this ordeal? Mohammed is forced into some pretty horrid conditions and ordeals, but we could care less whether he lives or dies, so we watch the film with little more than semi-queasy fascination.



The film's saving grace is Vincent Gallo. He's brilliant in the lead role. He's completely believable and brings a realism to every ordeal his character faces (probably because a lot of it was semi real--for instance, he really was forced to trek barefoot through the snow). But, why would a diehard Republican like Gallo sign up to play a terrorist? Well, according to the director, Gallo mainly responded to the challenge of it, especially to filming in the cold weather. And Gallo has admitted to almost never reading the scripts to films he stars in or actually watching them.

The direction by Jerzy Skolimowski is also pretty great. Every technical aspect of the film is well done. The cinematography is very well crafted. And some of these challenges the character faces are, in fact, quite thought-provoking and intriguing. But why do we follow a man like Mohammed? We have absolutely zero investment in the character or the situation. We see him kill American people and are supposed to care that he's forced to eat bugs from feces? And not to mention the fact that the film's overall point is flawed: it's called "Essential Killing" because we are supposed to see a normal man forced to face his inner animal and kill in order to survive, but we already know that Mohammed is a killer. We witness it within the first ten minutes of the film, so there's no real progression - or rather, regression - in the film.

"Essential Killing" is, if nothing else, fascinating in a weird sort of way. Sure, it's intriguing to see a man survive the conditions presented here, but we are watching in such a neutral fashion that it really doesn't matter one way or the other what happens. The film tries, at moments, to be slightly ambitious. We are given too-brief flashbacks of Mohammed's life before this story, but the flashbacks add up to random images that provide no larger context to the character, so they are about as worthless as Nancy Pelosi's help on an IQ test. The film also has no idea how to end, so it just ends.

The only reason to see "Essential Killing" is for its technical achievements and Gallo's dazzling performance. But that shouldn't be enough to drag anybody to see this film. It's a little too insidious and, at the same time, a little too neutral for its own good. Don't waste your time. There's no reason we need to watch a terrorist kill innocent American men. It happens everyday in real life, so why see it on the big screen when there seems to be no point and no larger context behind it?

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