By Sian Ruddick
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Essential Killing

This article is over 11 years, 4 months old

Director Jerzy Skolimowski
Release date: 1 April

Issue 357

This film is a stark portrayal of one man’s desperate struggle for survival. This may sound like a cliche, but here it is done well.

The story begins in Afghanistan, where the US-led occupation means the constant arrest and brutalisation of its people. The population are terrified of the US soldiers. Mohammed (Vincent Gallo) is captured when discovered by a US patrol.

The scenes of his imprisonment, with dozens of other men, hooded in orange jumpsuits, gives their detention the feel of a factory farm. He is waterboarded and abused, along with many others, before being transported to a secret prison in eastern Europe. As their convoy of trucks tip over en route to the prison, Mohammed escapes into a frosted forest wilderness.

It is from this point that we are alone with Mohammed, seeing only what he does, feeling his desperation to survive mingled with the terror of being caught.

Soldiers hunt him with dogs and helicopters. The scenes of snow and shadow are haunting and full of suspense. The almost total lack of dialogue and the sparse use of music make for an intense, sometimes exhausting, viewing experience – despite the relatively short running time of 83 minutes.

Apart from some very vividly coloured and fragmented flashbacks, the film often looks almost monochrome as the snow and the trees form the backdrop. The flashbacks do not tell us the story leading to Mohammed’s capture but show his life in Afghanistan in brief but revealing snatches. The bright blue skies and dusty villages contrast sharply with the almost colourless environment he now finds himself in.

Survival and humanity are so close and yet so often counterposed in this feature. To survive, Mohammed eats berries, termites and stolen fish. Some may start to question whether through this process he has lost his humanity altogether.

The interactions between Mohammed and other humans he comes into contact with are unsettling – sometimes for their brutality but also for the sheer rawness of their humanity.

Other reviews of this film have claimed that the lengths Mohammed goes to and his role as a Taliban fighter make it impossible to empathise, but I don’t agree. For me, watching a man being mercilessly hunted by the forces of the US and its allies brings up questions not just about humanity in the abstract, but also about forces and ideas that rampage across the world causing death and destruction while the people they oppress live in poverty and desperation.

There are moments throughout this film that force an involuntary gasp, and it is undoubtedly thought-provoking. But for me the strength of the style and cinematography really make it stand apart.

The final sequence is one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema I have seen in years.

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