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Essential Killing

The Domain of Action


Director Jerzy Skolimowski insists on the DVD extras that he wouldn’t want Essential Killing to be taken as a political film, though it cannot help but invoke in certain moments the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: especially when we see the central character played by Vincent Gallo in a boiler suit and waterboarded. But unlike Battle for Haditha, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, The Green Zone and The Hurt Locker, as well as documentaries My Country, My Country, No End in Sight and Standard Operating Procedure, Skolimowski doesn’t want to comment on the war; he wants to inquire into mankind.  “I tried to avoid touching any particular issues. We don’t know where the action takes place, where it begins and where it ends. I treat it completely as a background. To me it doesn’t matter if the background is the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani border or any other place and it doesn’t matter if the film ends in Lithuania, Poland or Romania or any other Central European Country. Neither does the side of the conflict matter.” (Quietus)  Like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line and The Deer Hunter, Essential Killing is interested in a question of violence over the specifics of historical precision. However, while the other films – even Kubrick’s – do nevertheless acknowledge a war (Vietnam and WWII), Skolimowski refuses to do so. The question then worth asking is why he chooses to ignore the specifics and focuses on the abstract. By way of contrast let us think of two remarks the narrator offers in Ernst Junger’s WWI novel, Storm of Steel. “What a beautiful country it was, and eminently worth our blood and our lives. Never before had I felt the charm so clearly. I had good and serious thoughts, and for the first time I sensed that this war was more than just a great adventure.” Later in the book the narrator says, “those few days were used by all of us to enjoy the life that we’d had to fight so hard to cling on to. We still couldn’t quite grasp that for the time being we’d given death the slip, and we wanted to feel the possession of this new lease of life, by enjoying it in every way possible.” The former indicates the love of country; the latter the love of life – the need for an organism to survive. Skolimowski uses the war as a backdrop for survival; any focus upon it would take away the survivalist aspect that is his theme, as we will explore later.

It also allows the film to be cinematic in an extreme example of serving up a story visually; insisting on showing rather than telling. We wouldn’t want to privilege the former to the complete detriment of the latter, but we can admire in Skolimowski here the logic of a showing over a telling that finds in such an approach not an immediate and common prejudice, but a logic within its own theme.

“What matters is the story of the process of the human being turning into a wild beast.” (Quietus) It shouldn’t be that the director regards showing as all important, but that showing is the only means by which to register the beast in man when language recedes. In one scene late in the film, a woman is sitting on the side of the road breastfeeding her baby when Mohammed (Gallo) starts sucking on the breast in need of calories rather than sex. The woman can only see a man who wants to abuse her in a moment where the absence of language (Mohammed is in a foreign land) creates very different thoughts in each person’s mind. What we have here is a third party limited perspective. Given the context of the situation someone would assume a rape is taking place, but a third party expanded position would see that what Mohammed wants is bodily sustenance, not sex. This doesn’t give us a privileged perspective: ours too has limitations, but we have seen him over the course of events try and survive, and part of that survival is finding food. The ambiguity here is evident in the sequence but not over several scenes, and thus why we differentiate between third-party limited and third-party expansive.

The film’s achievement rests partly on refusing us anything resembling omniscience as we might think of the scene where we are first introduced to Mohammed very early on in the film. American contractors are in the desert (actually filmed near the Dead Sea) and enter a narrow canyon which ‘separates the men from the boys’ when they see up one of the passageways a man holding a missile launcher over his shoulder. We are introduced to the danger before the Americans, as the film crosscuts between Mohammed and the others as the film leaves us wondering whether Mohammed is hiding out, ready to kill or only willing to do so to protect himself. If he looks so scared is it because he doesn’t want to kill or knows that to do so will probably endanger his own life? He waits for them to spot him before firing the launcher that kills all three in a gruesome instantaneousness, but whether this is beginner’s nerves or a veteran aware that killing them will lead to farther trouble later on, we cannot say. It is here the film sets in motion its first example of ambiguity: while most movies would be inclined to provide a character unequivocally villainous or equivocally heroic, Skolimowski keeps us in a state of moral indeterminacy. If we had heard Mohammed shout infidels and destruction to the west after an earlier scene showing a drinking, whoring hypocrite, or had a prior scene showing him sitting with his family drinking tea before troops came in and killed innocent members of his family, we would have been given psychological reasons to identify or otherwise with Gallo’s character. Instead the film focuses on the physiological, on the nature of survival. To make a film that focuses simply on showing rather than telling would be an exercise in assumption, but here are certain instances when showing over telling gives us a sense of what it means to be a creature of necessity rather than luxury: to see what needs to be done immediately rather than what one needs to focus upon for the sake of one’s identity. If Skolimowski emphasizes ambiguity in the scene with the woman to indicate the limited over the extended, here he does so by leaving us unsure of Mohammed’s motives, while in the latter instance we know exactly why he sucks at the woman’s breast. Nevertheless, the need to show over telling remains paramount: a need to explore how a person survives given a set of circumstances.

Here we see Mohammed caught in a chain of events that emphasizes the causal over the motivational; thus why we talk of the physiological over the psychological. Yet this doesn’t mean the film denies Mohammed subjectivity – his consciousness is often recognized from his point of view. There is the moment in the desert sequence where we see the other characters from his perspective pointing the missile launcher at them, and later when after he is captured we observe that he cannot hear the questions the commander is yelling at him because he has lost the use of his hearing. Here the sound moves from the commander’s voice clearly audible to a tinny noise inside Mohammed’s head that can hear nothing outside of it. We might wonder if the film at this moment fails to sustain its own objective nature; that by moving inside Mohammed’s head it is undermining the animal aspect it searches out. Perhaps, especially if we view the film through the taciturn, a type of cinema mastered by Jean Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, The Red Circle, Un Flic) but hinted at in the work of Walter Hill (The Driver) and Michael Mann (Thief, Heat) and even William Friedkin (The Sorcerer and To Live and Die in LA). In such films, action is expression, as we often see a process in play that reflects a character’s thoughts but does not require the character to express those thoughts verbally. In Red Circle we witness Yves Montand’s character making a special bullet for a heist; in The Sorcerer we follow closely the actions of a character creating the means by which to clear a log from the road, following the process without the explanation offered beforehand. In The Driver, Ryan O’Neal is asked how good a getaway man he happens to be and says nothing: he gets the gang to jump into the car and shows his driving brilliance careering round an underground car park. Action is character, as Fitzgerald would say, expression is not. Essential Killing would seem to be a film that shares Fitzgerald’s sentiment and finds itself part of the cinema we have invoked. Yet when our central character dreams, we have flashbacks to his time in the detention centre that allows for insight into Mohammed’s character, or a weakness of the film’s animalistic thematic, according to taste. If we believe it happens to be the latter we needn’t insists this is to predicate dialogue and expression over silence and process in the cinema; it depends on the given example. In this instance it seems the flashbacks are slightly superfluous, that Skolimowski could perhaps have found another means by which to make clear Gallo has lost his hearing, and that if he couldn’t have found a plausible dramatic mode in which to convey it, to drop it as a problem altogether. Possibly one way to have done incorporated it within the relatively objective would have been to show Gallo failing to respond to an offer that would have been in his interest to accept. Instead what we see is the US officer yelling at him to give information. Many might be inclined to fake deafness to avoid revealing a secret, but would be less likely to do so if they were being offered help. If the film had shown Gallo failing to respond to a kind offer, and then failing to give information to the officer, the viewer would be more likely to infer that he had a problem with his hearing. Instead, Skolimowski conveys it through subjective sound, and a film that works hard to remain apsychological becomes much more perceptually interior than many a film that makes no attempt at removing the motivational.

“I was never much concerned with theory. My domain is action, often based on pure instincts…film for me is mostly about motion and narrative.” (Cineaste) Skolimowski (who started out as a writer, had a lead role in Andrzej Wajda’s early sixties film Innocent Sorcerers, and is also a painter) has also had a flexible career as a director, making Polish films that were political and metaphorical including, Walkover and Barrier, before making films in English, including the British based Deep End, The Shout, Moonlighting and Success is the Best Revenge, the former pair hinting at the allegorical; the latter socially specific emigre stories. Yet his remark above would seem to suit Essential Killing more than any of the others, as though trying to find in narrative immediacy the domain of animal necessity. Strictly speaking we might say that when Skolimowski is talking about instincts here what he means is intelligence, and what is interesting about Essential Killing is that it is about the return to instinct. Henri Bergson discussing the relationship between instinct and intelligence in Creative Evolution, says of consciousness, “it signifies hesitation or choice. Where many equally possible actions are indicated without there being any real action (as in deliberation that has not come to an end), consciousness is intense. When the action performed is the only action possible (as in activity of the somnabulistic or more generally automatic kind), consciousness is reduced to nothing.” Bergson also notes that intelligence gains only complete self-possession in man, “and this triumph is attested by the very insufficiency of the natural means at man’s disposal for defense against his enemies, against cold and hunger. This insufficiency, when we strive to fathom its significance, acquires the value of a prehistoric document; it is the final leave-taking between intelligence and instinct.” Cinema has often been interested in this dimension of the throwback, of man thrown back on his primitive resources, as we find in The Naked Prey, Man in the Wilderness, Jeremiah Johnson and The Revenant. This is a survivalist tradition rather than the existential one evident in Heat, Le Samourai and others, and subsequently based less on intelligence than Melville and Mann’s films. They survive off their instincts rather than rely upon their intelligence and Essential Killing seems a halfway house between these two mini-genres. There is still often a great deal of deliberation (of consciousness) in Melville, Mann, Hill and Friedkin. There are plans of action, chess-like manoeuvres to get what a character wants or to escape from getting caught – whether it is a heist set up (The Red Circle) or an alibi sought (Le Samourai). One reason why it make sense for Skolimowski to talk about the film animalistically is that motivation is on a much lower level of deliberation than in the existential tradition. When the director says, “forget the politics, I can squeeze it into the introduction in the most enigmatic way possible, and then I have my film of the man who is running away and turning into a wild animal, who has to kill in order to survive.” (Electric Sheep) we can see that the viewer thinking too much about the political would result again in deliberation when Skolimowski would seem to seek something closer to immersion. He wants us to think only as far as the situation Mohammed happens to be in. When he gets his foot caught in animal trap we are left wondering how he will extract his foot from it, relieved when he manages to pull his leg out from the boot, but then we are left watching him struggling in the freezing environment with only one shoe. This is the sensory experience that demands the most basic of mental functions. To think outside of the immediacy of the film’s experience, to think too much about the socio-political aspect of  Mohammed’s life, would be not so much to miss the point as dilute the immersion.

Filmmakers and theorists in recent years have talked a lot about how to reconfigurate what Laura Mulvey famously called, in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, the male gaze especially within the context of a feminine oriented film. Beau Travail shows us forgien legionnaires’ bodies as objects of contemplation and desire rather than action. Fish Tank gives us a perspective on Michael Fassbender’s body that is based not on musculature, but the sinuously erotic. Equally, we have had the Harvard ethnography department pushing for sensory documentaries like Leviathan, with the filmmakers creating no context for the situation. In Leviathan, we are on a fishing trawler and the director Lucien Castaing-Taylor removes the anthropocentric focus on the fishermen to focus as much on the fish as the film offers sounds and images that frequently leave us feeling that we are part of the catch. Manakamana gives us the vivid immediacy of cables and cars as we witness various people going up and down a Nepalese mountain. In an article by Irina Leimbacher on Leviathan and others, she quotes Castaing-Taylor saying that he seeks, [in Sweetgrass] “to anthropomorphize sheep and simultaneously to bestialize humanity.” This desire to relativize the human, to suggest a “kind of restless ontological parity” between the human and non-human, is an equally crucial element in Leviathan.” (Film Comment) In quite distinct ways Beau Travail, Fish Tank, Manakamana and Leviathan capture a shift in sensory immediacy from classical cinema’s focus on the look at one remove to the body at one with the image. Skolimowski’s remarks about the animal aren’t too far removed from Castaing-Taylor’s as the male gaze becomes an animalistic one. The classic notion of a man having to do what a man’s gotta do always had a moral ring to it, as though there were certain values man was expected to live up to. In Essential Killing a man has to do no more than survive as the film eschews the morally contextualising. When Skolimowski insisted he didn’t want to make a film about politics he could have gone further and said he didn’t want to make a film about moral significance, we can think of the scene where Gallo kills a forester with a buzzsaw. We are given little context beyond the fact the man is doing his job and that a tree he and others have felled falls on Mohammed, trapping him beneath it overnight, The next day the forester is sawing the tree when Mohammed pounces on him. They tussle, hitting each other before Mohammed goes for the buzzsaw and appears to take take the man’s head off. Wouldn’t a film usually give a context for the man’s life that would justify Mohammed taking him out; at the very least would he not make a grab for the saw intending to kill Mohammed? But the film wants to show that morality is less important than necessity. Mohammed kills the man because not to do so would lead to his capture. This is a prime example of the other man being in the wrong place at the wrong time and reminds us how often films put people in the right place at the right time to kill them off. Mohammed’s approach is a bit like the Western film’s equivalent of shooting someone in the back – a man doesn’t always do what a man ought to do.

The survivalist film is a stripped-down affair and we can think of three other examples during the decade to draw out differences. 127 Hours, and All is Lost; as opposed to Essential Killing and The Revenant. The former pair are close to passive works, reliant on thought to combat a crisis situation. 127 Hours focuses on a walker and climber who gets trapped by a boulder in a canyon and has to sever his arm to get free. In All is Lost, a sailor’s boat is hit by a shipping container and the rest of the film follows his attempt to shore up the damage and hope for some help to arrive. There is no essential killing to either film, only necessary survival. In 127 Hours the central character has to find a way of extricating his arm from the trapped boulder, in All is Lost, the sailor has to find ways in which to keep the boat afloat. These are fiddly films dealing with the minutiae of a situation as we wonder how the respective characters will find the most ingenious manner in which to try and survive. They are plant-like figures of relative stillness, trying to find out of their immediate environment the means by which to sustain their lives. In Essential Killing and The Revenant these are not plants of immobility but animals of movement, covering vast areas of territory and where killing is central to their survival. In the former pairing we seek the good Samaritan, someone who will turn up and save a life. We might call them, in common parlance, ‘humanist’ films in that we wish that someone will come along and rescue them. In Essential Killing and The Revenant they are in this sense ‘dehumanizing’: other humans (and sometimes animals) are usually a perceived threat, something that will intrude and must be eradicated. The scene in The Revenant where Leonardo Di Caprio’s characters kills a bear that he then wears is the ultimate example of this essential killing. As the film’s costume designer Jacqueline West would say “The animal that almost kills him is the animal that, in many waves, saves his life,”  (Vanity Fair) The position we are put in watching The Revenant and Skolimowski’s film is brutal self-preservation, even if Essential Killing concludes with moments of tenderness as a woman treats his wounds. In the former pair we are hopeful -wishing for the milk of human kindness to appear. In an interview with the Telegraph, the actual Aron Ralston, the character from 127 Hours, said “If you want someone to show up and help you if something bad happens, you’d better tell someone where you’re going. And of course I wanted someone to know – but I’d made a choice and it was a choice I was going to have to live with.” The central character in All is Lost might say something similar. These are both adventurous loners paying a price for their solitude. Yet the film aren’t ironically indicating they can’t do everything alone – they are instead acknowledging that within the need for solitude there remains also a desire for connection. A desperate situation brings out not the essential killing but the essential communication. Most of the time we don’t feel the essence of communication; more the social obligation and its habitual presence. These are men who seek out the individualistic and find in it the importance of that human kindness in its absence.

In Essential Killing and The Revenant these are men thrown into their predicaments. After being mauled by a Grizzly Bear, Di Caprio’s character is all but left for dead and spends the rest of the film trying to get back to what passes for civilization. The question doesn’t reside in a need for solitude and freedom. Instead it rests on the idea of the human as a threat. Gallo has been tortured in Essential Killing; Di Caprio must fend for himself in The Revenant. All is Lost and 127 Hours‘ affect resides in the human as friend. We offer such observations not just for the point of compare and contrast analysis, but to say that even if films would fall ostensibly under a similar rubric, the affects they produce and the ideological possibilities behind the feelings the films evoke can be quite distinct. On a basic level the former pair as political affect indicate the right-wing: a survival of the fittest and one against all. The latter pair suggest a left-wing thesis: no man is an island, and we must help each other. We are here indicating not a clear ideological stance the film will be taking, nor even a conventionally sub-textual one. This has nothing to do with seeing a film like The Deer Hunter as racist and right-wing because of the way the Vietcong are presented, nor the implicit admiration of wealth indicated in many a tracking shot showing an apartment’s luxuriousness in a film like 9 ½ Weeks that we are supposed to admire – even if the character who owns the apartment (Mickey Rourke) is from Kim Basinger’s perspective finally less than admirable. Often enough films, especially in the yuppie era of the mid-to-late eighties, would tell us greed is not good but nevertheless show us in various moments that it looks pretty good indeed. But we are thinking of something slightly different. This would be affective immediacy of the film’s circumstances not its ideological bad faith. In The Revenant and Essential Killing the films are putting us in the shoes of people who need to survive. They make us feel what it is like to rely on one’s own resources as other people are more likely to be a source of danger than helpful. In 127 Hours and All is Lost we are placed in a position where any hint at human presence is a possible blessing and thus affectively indicates a left-wing perspective suggesting we need others. Out of that need entire ideological edifices are built, just as many who proclaim the glories of advanced capitalism insist on drawing upon theories of selfishness to do so. Yet we wouldn’t at all say that 127 Hours and All is Lost are better films than The Revenant and Essential Killing. The quality of the work wouldn’t reside in how they make us feel on the political spectrum, but how they access an affective texture that can tell us something about human nature. One reason why we have such a problem with many a film that softens its violent message (allowing a character to kill so often in self-defence) is becauseit doesn’t pursue its own first principle and settles for a societal fudging. It arrives at what the audience wants rather than what the film would seem to be moving towards.

If we have reservations about the essential quality of Essential Killing it might rest in this area. We have already expressed reservations about the flashbacks, and we could offer another about the film’s conclusion. Does the film’s ending indicate a softening of perspective taking into account the hard values we have argued the film presents? If The Revenant has that key scene where Di Caprio’’s character kills and strips the bear, Essential Killing ends with Gallo moving through the landscape on a horse that he slides off as he passes away. If we think that the film isn’t simply settling for soft humanism by its conclusion, it rests partly on the notion of essential killing also incorporating essential kindness. Whether it is the good Samaritan crossing the road, Jesus being taken in at the stable, or people hiding Jews in their houses during the war, these are all examples of what we could call essential kindness. It is this essential kindness Emannuelle Seigner’s character offers as Mohammed, a blood-soaked stranger, turns up at her door. She tends to his wounds and doesn’t give him up when troops arrive, searching for this fugitive. There is a moment as she crouches over him trying to attend to his wounds when he screams out in agony and we watch as her own nervous is shaken at one remove that nevertheless is present as immense physical compassion. Mohammed is no longer the man who must kill to survive, but has become the figure who can transfer an aspect of his human pain onto another. Is this the moment when he is ready to die? Let us not impose a thematic onto a narrative reality too readily. Nevertheless, if we accept his death shortly afterwards, if we feel he has died at the appropriate time, it may rest partly on his need no longer to fight but to succumb, as if he is visited by the hand of death in the manner of a caress, of affection. Elias Canetti (who has a long section in his book Crowds and Power on the survivor), says that “the design of one body on the other becomes concrete from the moment of touching. Even at the lowest levels of life this moment has something decisive about it.” In this instance, the touch is decisive as Mohamed is no longer the survivor but the attended. Afterwards he gets on the horse and the film which has worked in harsh opposites as its desert interiors and snowy landscapes have been atrocious environments in which to survive, becomes white. We offers italics to indicate that the film has moved away from realist survival towards connotative mortality and reflects this in a marvellous shot as he rides away on a white horse against the white snow. The camera follows him briefly as he leaves the house and then it retreats and pans as it picks up Seigner looking on. It is beautifully tranquil as we follow the camera’s movement and the slow tread of the horse leaving. But as Seigner starts to walk away from the door the wind picks up and the snow starts to fall. It hints less at an arduous environment Mohammed is once again facing, though face it he will, than a harbinger of death as he will die shortly afterwards. If we talk about the whiteness in italics, and mention the importance of the connotative, it rests on the film’s move into abstraction, into no longer being at one with the character’s survivalist instincts and instead focusing on framing him within a context greater than his own organism. Now it isn’t as though the film hasn’t hinted at this dimension earlier. We can think of a helicopter shot a quarter of the way through the film that initially kills the sound of the helicopter as the camera glides overhead through the forest, before we hear the chopper’s sounds as the film then cuts to it in the sky. There is an abstract quality to the film that absorbs within it a greater metaphysical possibility than The Revenant, for all the latter’s unequivocal Tarkovsky plunderings. Misha Petrick on Vimeo draws no less than seventeen direct references from the great Russian master in Inarratu’s movie. This is perhaps a metaphysical prosthetics, where the filmmaker doesn’t have a vision beyond the pragmatics of his own and finds that added dimension in another director’s work. Skolimowski’s seems more integrated as he seeks to explore what is the limit of essential killing and that perhaps survival is not only the organism preserving its own being, but retaining as well the consciousness that accepts one’s own demise is not the limit of its existence. We needn’t see this religiously; it may be no more than the self that continues in the minds of others that is a vital dimension of our being in the world when we are alive, and that will continue in various manifestations after we have gone. The shot where Mohamed rides away from the house as the camera picks up and his temporary carer looking on indicates no longer that the world is one against all, but that all is potentially one: that we might feel alone as we try and stay alive, but dying removes that capacity to be alone however one might choose to phrase it.

But, in conclusion, what do we mean by this cinematographically, and does it contradict Skolimowski’s claims about his own work that we earlier quoted? We might think of Deleuze’s notion of a mitsein camera in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image where he says the camera “no longer mingles with the character, nor is it outside: it is with him.” In the helicopter shot, and in the shot where the camera leaves Mohammed before picking up his carer in the same shot, these are mitsein moments rather than dasein shots: the difference between being with others or being with oneself. It is in such shots that the film justifies a metaphysics as form which needn’t lead us to assume the spiritual but that takes us beyond the immediate. Skolimowski may claim “my domain is action, based on pure instinct”, but there is also in Essential Killing an aesthetic wish to move beyond that action, this pure instinct. One might on occasion need to kill essentially to survive, but we may require another faculty in which to accept that we no longer will continue to do so. Some could say that the film goes soft in its closing ten minutes, taking into account our claim that survivalist films like The Revenant and Essential Killing can seem affectively right-wing, and taking into account some of Skolimowski’s own claims, but our view is that if the film has failings in its use of flashback, this does not extend to a failing in the conclusion. How is a man to live, the film seems to ask as it throws us into numerous survivalist situations, before asking by its conclusion, how is a man to die as he will fall from the horse that supports him. The film’s closing moments are a series of cutaways to nature as we see the horse now alone, chewing on some grass poking through the snow. It is surviving too, but at the polar end of Mohammed as we watch its herbivorous existence.

©Tony McKibbin