Essential Killing is a film about an unnamed man (played by Vincent Gallo), presumably Arab or Afghani, who is hunted by American troops and mercenaries, jailed, tortured, and thrust through a gauntlet of physical trials in his efforts to escape. I found it to be an incredibly striking film, not least because it seeks to provoke a "hero response" from the viewer for an obviously Islamist insurgent by surrounding Gallo's character with a rhetoric of valour, courage, and suffering.
This rhetoric is highly convincing in the early stages of the film, when gangster-like, caricature mercenaries are tracking the hero through arroyos. Gallo's character is consistently marked by expressions of distress, near to weeping, victimized and desperate, so when in this first scene he eradicates his pursuers--who have only just been smoking heroin and kidding around--with an RPG, we are immediately on his side.
This is further compounded when the Islamist is captured and taken to a military jail, beaten, water-boarded, and so on. These scenes are difficult to watch, and compound the rhetoric of injustice that surrounds Gallo's character.
But when he finally escapes and is forced to fight and kill for his freedom, the actions become more than the story--in which the hero never speaks--can account for. Gallo's howls of pain as he blows away American mercenaries are a stretch, but when he is positively weeping as he shoves some Eastern European lumberjack's face into a chainsaw, I literally burst out laughing. In another scene, he steals a fish from a fisherman and--weeping again--devours it raw.
Symbolically and cinematographically, the film has many great and incredibly powerful moments as our nameless and silent hero struggles to survive; and the obvious rhetorical ploy to magnify the ambiguity of the combatants' morality in a war like the one in Afghanistan is, in the final measure, very effective (even if I was already biased to lend support to the insurgents of an occupied country).
The problem with Essential Killing is that the main character has no story. As noted in the n+1 column that led me to watch the film, the hero is not a subject but an object, a being of pure action without words or even justifications. Unlike n+1's reviewer, though, I believe this weakens the film enormously. The flashback/dream sequences in which we see the pre-disruption, pseudo-developed village life of Gallo's character actually did a lot for me in terms of justifying the character by understanding the schism that has erupted in his life. But ultimately, we don't know where he came from before the film started, and, other than the bare instinct to survive, we don't know where he's going. With this emptiness of context, the story ends up feeling like an enormous prank, or just a very heavy-handed and ineffective inversion: here is the enemy, says the film, and he is your hero.
Of course, that the film could have been better doesn't make it bad. The sounds and visuals alone make it worth watching. And then there's that hilarious chainsaw scene...