With the tightly wound "Essential Killing," veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski ("Deep End," "The Shout") defies a slew of cinematic conventions in an attempt to intrigue, rattle and rivet his audience. For the most part, he succeeds.
Starring iconoclastic American actor Vincent Gallo ("Buffalo '66," "The Brown Bunny") as Mohammed, a Taliban fighter who, through a series of dire events, ends up on the loose in a wintry Eastern European forest, the movie deftly shifts from its initial chase thriller mode to a grueling, offbeat tale of human survival. Skolimowski's you-are-there cameras — along with plenty of stirring helicopter shots — vividly capture the frigid terror of Mohammed's agonizing journey as he dispatches any obstacle in his path to freedom with brutal single-mindedness.
The filmmaker (who co-wrote the minimalist script with co-producer Ewa Piaskowska) effectively presents his nearly anonymous antihero as both hunter and prey, never asking — or expecting — us to side with this Afghan war fugitive beyond simply serving witness to his nightmarish circumstances, which also includes foraging for food in some shocking places.
Gallo, who was named best actor at this year's Venice Film Festival, proves galvanizing without uttering a single word (there's precious little dialogue here). Rarely has such strict physicality been used on screen to such potent effect.
"Essential Killing." Unrated. In English, Polish and Arabic with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.