Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Essential Killing DVD review

There can’t be many things more irritating for a Guardian-reading, Quorn-eating smug artsy critic than watching a left-of-the mainstream film by a foreign director and coming away wondering if you’ve missed something. Not, like, a key plot moment or a hidden subtext, but, you know, the whole bloody thing. That’s intellectual impotence on my part. Embarrassing.

Maybe it’s not me. My gut feeling is that Essential Killing is striking, bold, beautifully shot, engaging and thoughtful, but there’s a whole load of other things that it should be, but sadly isn’t – like compelling, entertaining or similar. It may very well be me, but I once retweeted something really noble about boycotting something or other, so that says what kind of guy I am. Anyway, after killing a team of US soldiers, a Middle-Eastern insurgent rebel (Vincent Gallo) is captured and transferred to a Guantanamo Bay-style facility for the kind of full-board hospitality that has earned the US military a respectable spot on TripAdvisor. Now, we’re okay up till this bit; crazy-eyed beardy Gallo as the captive is a superb piece of casting which brings with it plenty of moral ambiguity as to who the enemy really is, echoing the Shoe Bomber Richard Reid and the tales of Guantanamo Bay inmates who were actually British shop assistants. Granted, Gallo’s character is clearly guilty of at least multiple murder, but the moral gray areas hang there – we’re given no clear guide on who’s the bad guy here, especially as we spend a great deal of time watching from Gallo’s perspective before he’s subjected to waterboarding and the kind of physical abuse that would be called at least a foul in a dead-arm competition.

So a curious moral position is established – do we empathise with the prisoner or the real victims? Are we meant to weigh up the validity of the entire conflict? It doesn’t matter that much, as things soon veer off. While being driven to a part of Europe where the army is permitted to get a tad more freestyle with its torturing, the truck crashes, offering Gallo the chance to escape into a wintry wilderness. What’s left is a chase movie, with Gallo evading capture, scavenging for food and fighting for his survival in a hostile, but cinematically pretty, environment. Given that we’re encouraged to put ourselves in the fugitive’s shoes and there's no dialogue to help construct a narrative, it takes on an element of a first-person computer game. The problem is that the game in question feels like a rejected first-draft demo of Metal Gear Solid, more particularly the moment in the game when you’re not quite sure how to solve the next bit and instead start jumping around like Leeroy Jenkins and hitting the action button in the vain hope that you stumble upon something. The good news for Gallo is that his peformance was the only thing that got me through it, as the lack of dialogue focuses it all on his suffering and need to survive getting a thespy channeling – and as a result he got to be in an Old Spice ad for the finale. So he's all right.

As for the extras, there’s an interview with director Jerzy Skolimowsky and some CGI production footage of the sequence where Gallo is hunted down by helicopter, which is sadly the kind of thing most people will by now take for granted. Maybe it’s me who’s wrong and Essential Killing is actually a smart and brave deconstruction of modern narrative methods and a critique of a war that nobody wanted. Personally, I wouldn’t put any big money on that.

Essential Killing is out now on DVD and Blu-ray

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