I arrived in Venice having resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to catch up with either Black Swan or Somewhere and hoped that my first filmgoing experience of this year’s festival, Jerry Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, would prove to be an auspicious opener. Alas, that wasn’t to be the case.
The story of Mohammed (Vincent Gallo), a member of the Taliban who, in the film’s striking opening sequence, kills three Americans, two contractors, one soldier, with a rocket launcher in a desert cave system, before being shipped off to, first, a US detention centre in Afghanistan, where he is tortured, before being airlifted to an unnamed, snow-covered East European country. En route to presumably another Guantanamo-esque detention camp, the van transporting him overturns during a freak road accident and Mohammed manages to escape, killing another two US soldiers in the process.
From there on in, the film becomes a cross-country survivalist tale, as Gallo’s character, who doesn’t utter a word throughout, tries to stay one step ahead of his pursuers as he treks across a bleak, hostile winter wilderness, subsisting on ants, tree bark and in a scene that's become something of talking point here, supping on the breast milk of a pregnant woman who happens to be breastfeeding her young baby at the time.
Veteran Polish director Skolimowski deserves admiration for both his film’s refusal to judge Mohammed for his actions and its attempt to elicit our sympathies in a central character who, as the title suggests, kills in order to survive, as well as for Adam Sikora’s cinematography — there are a couple of breathtakingly vertiginous landscape shots of the Afghan desert and a snow-covered pine forest that are quite sensational — but, ultimately, I wasn’t taken with the drama of it all as some others here were.