Review: Essential Killing *BAFICI Screening*

By Guido Pellegrini

This is mind-clearing stuff, a sparse and immediate film that focuses directly on what it is about without clutter or extraneous filling: the guttural, animalistic sprint for survival undergone by an escaped terrorist, presented with little back-story and almost no dialogue. Which is welcome, since the few intrusions of either are uniformly embarrassing: back-story is given to us through color-saturated flashbacks that play like meek imitations of Neon Genesis Evangelion, while dialogue is mostly uttered by brutish American soldiers condemned to perform the undignified role of villainous cipher historically reserved for Arabs, Asians, Eastern Europeans and the hundreds of faceless Latin Americans who died filming Commando. Otherwise, Essential Killing expunges all potential impurities, giving us the unadorned sight of a body in motion as it struggles past obstacles both organic and inorganic – though mostly organic.

Our protagonist operates on gut instinct, natural drive, and emotional impulse. His approach to ideology and jihad is not intellectual; it is an inevitable response to the binary callings of nation and faith. Essential Killing does not pretend to be an examination of terrorism. It is concerned with direct and sensory human experience. Our common terrorist grunt, immersed in the endless desert of sand and sculptured crevices, worries about physical and intimate matters, far removed from the grand narratives of international discourse and foreign policy. He is placed in an extreme situation that erases context: captured by American forces, transported to northern Europe, and then blessed with an unlikely escape, he must survive and brave armed persecution amidst wild and frozen terrain. He could be anyone running away from anyone else. Definitions vanish in the life-or-death urgency of his flight. We forget his nationality, his origin, his purpose, and even his humanity. Underneath the grid of bare branches that fragments the snowed-in landscape, the protagonist is equal to the animals. While his health stutters, nature awakens to the rebirth of spring, as if mocking the transience of human folly with its eternal cycle.

Essential Killing provokes two contradictory appraisals. It is either an unambitious film that skirts any kind of profound investigation on the current “war on terror,” outside an under-developed criticism of American military excess; or an acute work that finds the real human core of the conflict in the elemental and direct relationship between a lonely man and the landscape that dwarfs him, an uncontrollable landscape that reminds him, in its immutable grandeur, of his own mortal insignificance. Despite my siding with the latter opinion, I reserve a nagging suspicion that the former view is not devoid of merit, that at its heart, Essential Killing is an action movie with a topical dressing. But its mood, mystery, and frequent visual poetry suggest something more. Even as it deals with today’s thorniest subject matter, the film stops to watch the grass break through winter’s snow, as if to dispel the ideological and political fog that drives and complicates the conflict in order to arrive, finally, at the primitive, eternal, and – hence the title perhaps – essential truths of man and nature.

70/100 - This is mind-clearing stuff, a sparse and immediate film that focuses directly on what it is about without clutter or extraneous filling

Buenos Aires Film Critic. I might look like a cinephile, sound like a cinephile, and watch films like a cinephile, but I'm not sure that I am, in fact, a cinephile. I like to think of myself as some sort of itinerant (and probably lost) traveler who has chosen film as his preferred medium of imaginative flight, and who has in turn chosen imaginative flight as his preferred method of thinking.