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A Taliban member who lives in Afghanistan is taken captive by the Americans after killing an American soldier and two contractors. He is transferred to Europe for interrogation but manages to escape from his captors and becomes an escaped convict on a continent he does not know. Written by
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After Mohammed falls in the water he climbs out of the lake. However, in the following scene with the dog he seems dry. See more »
Essential Killing begins in a desert gorge in Afghanistan, with three off duty American soldiers on a dubious, unspecified outing, possibly in search of stashed loot. Also in the gorge is an Afghan man, listed in the credits as Mohammed (an initially unrecognisable Vincent Gallo). He spies the Americans and flees to a crevice concealing a dead Afghan holding a bazooka. Who killed this man is unclear. As the Americans approach and their suspicions are aroused, Muhammad fires the weapon and obliterates them, alerting an accompanying American chopper which swoops in and quickly apprehends him.
It's best to go into the film without knowing too many details beforehand, suffice it to say that a shell-shocked Mohammed is taken for interrogation before being transferred out of Afghanistan and managing, in a scenario that will be familiar to fans of a certain film about a fugitive, to escape and flee. While this might sound, and indeed does initially appear like standard action film fodder, what distinguishes Essential Killing is the boldness of the manner in which Mohammed's subsequent experience is conveyed. The audience is slyly forced to share in his disorientation at being jolted out of his homeland. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that an individual's perception of where they are or where the path lies can change quickly.
Questions of lazy or fanciful plot contrivances, such as why a crash scene is abandoned with a prisoner still missing, or why a domesticated Border Collie opportunely appears in the middle of nowhere, are subsumed by the increasingly evident hallucinatory nature of Mohammed's journey. These hallucinations are most effective when their verisimility is left open, occasionally though they err towards overstatement. What emerges is like a fusion of The Fugitive's pulsating action with the aesthetic sensibilities of Dog Star Man and Far North. The finished article is reminiscent of the impressionistic WW2 escape film Diamonds of the Night.
While it would be impossible to consider Mohammed an innocent victim of circumstance, his brutal actions are clearly motivated by fumbling, disoriented desperation rather than malice, his violence is that of a frightened animal lashing out and grabbing what it needs to survive. Likewise, the treatment of the interrogations is admirably matter of fact. There's no hint of the sensationalism displayed in films such as Rendition and Body of Lies. Neither Mohammed nor the soldiers are allowed to descend into caricature; instead their depiction is refreshingly economical.
Essential Killing is likely to receive criticism at several levels. It forgoes any excursions into glib didacticism while telling a story from the point of view of an Afghan prisoner of war, but it also binds this protagonist with the unfamiliar companions of chase thriller tropes and art house digressions. Similar treatment in recent films such as Vinyan and Antichrist has tended to divide viewers quite sharply. Essential Killing is arguably a more measured work, although still a bold and original one. Anyone willing to take it on its own terms may find an extremely absorbing film.
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