Essential Killing – 5.24.2020

Watched once, indifferent

How many years after 9/11 is enough time to convince a Western audience to root for a Taliban fighter? Is it 50? Is it 100? Jerzy Skolimowski seems to have taken this challenge head on just nine years after the fact in his 2010 thriller Essential Killing, which doesn’t even test the waters before introducing the protagonist, a Taliban fighter, firing a rocket launcher into three U.S. soldiers on the screen in the first two minutes.

*spoilers ahead

How did I acquire this film?

I took a chance on a used DVD copy because it was only a buck, and I don’t think I’ve come across it anywhere else since. This copy had lots of laurel wreaths on the cover and belonged to a Tribeca Film collection. Back then that was enough to push me to at least think about watching a film, and I suppose it still does.

What do I remember about watching this film the first time?

I remember being unimpressed. I can’t recall the plot, there was a clear attempt at making a political statement about military corruption. There’s little to no dialogue the entire film. I think the character only kills when necessary, hence the name.

What’s this really about?

Essential Killing follows a Taliban fighter as he struggles to evade the United States’ military through a frigid, mountainous landscape, continually finding himself in situations where he must decide whether to kill the people and animals he encounters. Each encounter requires the protagonist to make a choice and act. These choices may be the best tools the audience finds to make sense of the protagonist and develop feelings toward him. There is essentially no dialogue (the protagonist never speaks), and aside from a couple obscure flashbacks we don’t know much about his background, probably that he lost his wife and child.

The story opens with three U.S. soldiers searching a gorge. They make their way to a cave, where the protagonist lays in hiding with a rocket launcher, waiting to see if they will pass. When they begin to enter the cave, the protagonist fires into the group obliterating all three soldiers. As the protagonist flees the cave, a military helicopter swoops in and a dozen soldiers capture him.

We never learn why the soldiers are in this location or what the protagonist has done leading up to this moment. We can only rely on our knowledge of the U.S. War in Afghanistan to fill in these gaps, but should we? No doubt we all watch films through the lenses of our own biases, but the inability to see any of the characters’ political motivations leaves us almost nothing except our biases to try and make meaning.  

This is a skillful decision from the director, because it strips down what could be a highly politicized topic and focuses on a story of survival that leaves the protagonist’s morality and dignity open for interpretation. Some people will not see it that way at all, I know. For some, the idea of lending any grace or understanding to a fictional Taliban fighter is sacrilegious, and I understand that viewpoint. For others, leaving so much to the imagination and working with what is given on the screen opens the possibility to explore the question of whether we can empathize with this protagonist.

This first encounter doesn’t ask if the killing is essential, it sets the parameters for what essential killing means to the protagonist. We see the protagonist wait to kill, seeing if by chance the soldiers leave the area. When they start to corner him in the cave, he decides to kill. This shows that killing becomes essential to the protagonist if his freedom or life are in jeopardy. There are hundreds if not thousands of stories embraced by Western culture in which the protagonists follow this exact code. Hell, this is the code espoused by Right Wing sympathizers who fly Gadsden flags and lecture about the Second Amendment. So in that there’s nothing special about this story line except for the protagonist’s allegiance to the Taliban. Still, too much for some people I know, and I’d guess that most of the people who wouldn’t be able stomach this film fly Gadsden flags and dutifully recite NRA newsletters. But to be fair, I know a lot of White Americans would turn this off as soon as they realized it’s not a story about serving their brand of justice.

The protagonist endures torturous interrogations at a prisoner camp before escaping his captors after the van he’s being transported in crashes down a hill in the middle of the night. Daylight breaks and the protagonist is driving on a snow-covered road in a wooded area. A military helicopter approaches and the protagonist attempts to make a getaway on foot, but dozens of soldiers and k-9 trackers are in hot pursuit. As the military closes in, it seems escape is impossible, but as luck would have it, the protagonist comes across a whimpering Border Collie caught in a steel trap. The protagonist sets the dog free and puts his sock on the dog’s paw to lead the soldiers away. His plan mostly works, except one soldier stays back as his dog, a ferocious German Shepherd, stops to investigate and picks up the protagonist’s scent. When the dog discovers the protagonist hiding behind a tree on a hill, the dog makes a leap, pulling the soldier and the protagonist downhill. The soldier crashes to the ground and either dies or remains unconscious. The protagonist lands in icy water and is attacked by the German Shepherd as he tries to pull himself up onto land. He repeatedly stabs the dog until it is dead.

Skipping way ahead (because this isn’t a blog about deconstructing entire films), the protagonist has made a mostly clean get away, but unfortunately is suffering from a mortal wound. He takes a white horse from a farm in the middle of unknown territory and rides off in the snow, slouched against the horse’s neck and coughing blood all down the animal’s white body. The final shot shows the horse, painted with blood, grazing on top of a hill. The protagonist has presumably died.  

Takeaways

I had remembered Essential Killing being about injustice, but the film doesn’t try to make that argument, except perhaps the torture scenes. So much of the context and background in Essential Killing is left untold that it’s really not worth arguing the morality of the war in general, there are other films for that. Essential Killing is a survival thriller to the likes of Crank or The Grey, but stripped down to a crude narrative framework that has been disguised by symbols that evoke strong emotions. This character arc could have (ahem, has) taken place with a protagonist who is instead a U.S. soldier, a tourist, a landman (e.g., The Grey), etc.

When you look past the political symbols that really have no weight to the story, this film is asking if the code this character follows for taking life is ethical or not. Can the audience root for a Taliban fighter to succeed because of how he acts on this code? What does his code and his ability to put it into action say about him? This is where the real essence seems to be for the story. When we see him refrain from killing, is it because of moral code, or because killing can draw the soldiers to him?

Can the audience root for a Taliban fighter who is presented as an underdog – outnumbered and under resourced – if he’s up against a group of people using their power to imprison and torture him? There are times it seems the director is trying to nudge the audience to root for him. The scene with the trapped Border Collie plays to our emotions. The protagonist discovers the dog during an intense chase, which is presented through one of the tensest shot sequences in the film. The dog is curled up and whimpering. We’re not really sure what’s going to happen, it seems like there’s nothing he can do to escape, but he strategically wraps his bloody sock around the dog’s paw and sets it free to lead the soldiers and their dogs away. Western audiences are suckers for dogs. How many times have you heard, or maybe said yourself, “kill all the people you want, but don’t kill the fucking dog!” (see I am Legend and John Wick for starters). Surely some people are won over by him saving the dog. And yet, one can make the argument there was no motivation for the protagonist to kill the Border Collie, or he would’ve, and instead the scene shows the protagonist’s ingenuity.

And yet if you are going to kill a dog, kill one that more closely resembles a generic police officer or soldier (never if the dog is part of a cop movie). When one of these dogs is attacking you like the German Shepherd, it’s a relief when the dog finally does die (see The Green Room).

Oh, and the Border Collie, we’ll call it McGuffin. McGuffin returns a couple of times throughout the movie, the best scene being where the protagonist starts to hallucinate from some psychedelic berries he ate in the forest and is visited by a few dozen clones of McGuffin. And when a protagonist develops a relationship with an animal in the wild, we’re supposed to trust the animal’s intuition and root for the protagonist too (see Dances with Wolves).

As for whether or not Skolimowski was successful, Essential Killing has a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes (46% Audience Score) and three stars from Ebert. I think this film is definitely going to fall along political lines, especially in today’s climate, with conservative viewers being unable to stomach a protagonist in the Taliban and liberal viewers thinking it’s more edgy or groundbreaking than it really is.

Keep or Purge?

Keeping for now. Could see myself parting with it eventually.

 

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