Just when we’d all got used to saying that cinema had made a risible attempt at tackling the so-called War On Terror, with its paltry efforts eclipsed by TV, then two exceptions come along at once. Let’s start with ’Essential Killing’...
When I coined the term “landscape porn” while reviewing ‘The American’, someone even commended me for it in the comments section. Yet truth be told I was merely adding to an already over-stuffed array of such terms - property porn, grief porn, shelf porn, tech porn, riot porn... I expect any day now someone will look quizzically at ’Razzle’ magazine before exclaiming “its like porn porn!”
“Porn” is of course being used as a shorthand for a thing fetishised out of any context. But at the same time the immediacy of film, it’s ability to throw us straight in the deep end of a situation, is one of the form’s greatest assets. Here the landscape isn’t some sweet-looking backdrop, like a moving photoshoot. In ’Essential Killing’ the characters couldn’t be any more in that landscape.
And we’re taken into an unfamiliar landscape not once but twice. First we’re flung into the arid crevices and caves of Afghanistan (actually filmed in Israel) alongside some Americans on some unexplained mission. But pretty soon we’re with rendition victim Mohammed, who escapes his captors to be confronted by the snowy mountains of Poland. Both times, we see the landscape through foreign eyes.
It’s notable that creator Jerzy Skolimowski previously scripted ’Knife in the Water’, which similarly took characters we knew little of and thrust them deep into nature. But the chief difference here is that speech is so scant. For much of the time its’ used as a sound source rather than for dialogue; it conveys ambience over information, like the voice can be with music. Characters are only named in the credits. This adds greatly to the sense of immediacy and forces the film back upon it’s core strengths – it has to show not tell.
Silent throughout, Mohammed’s only contextualisation comes from his brief, semi-hallucinogenic flashbacks. Over the course of the film he both sins and is sinned against, but where did this cycle start? Is he an anti-imperialist freedom fighter, stolen from home, on the run from murder squads? A gun-toting terrorist fleeing justice? Or an innocent manipulated into battle by religious fanatics, then left freezing and alone? It could be any one of these...
...but I’m tempted to go with the third. An early scene seems to epitomise this, when an American interrogator confronts him with questions - but all he can hear is ringing in his ears from rocket fire. The sheer absence of communication becomes almost Babel-like, as if any common language has long since become confounded. There’s also echoes of the Frankenstein story, or at least the early parts of it, with the sole-befriender blind man in the woods replaced (significantly enough) by a mute woman. If Mohammed does monstrous things, which at one point cause him to break down and cry, perhaps he was made into that monster.
Like both comparisons above, ultimately the specificity is just a springboard from which to ask such questions of identity. In ’The Guardian’ Peter Bradshaw described it as “on the verge of delirium, a metaphysical drama.” Rooted in the political but aiming at the existential, the film is a kind of cousin to Steve McQueen’s ’Hunger.’
(After watching, I discovered a quote from Skolimowski which suggests even this interpretation might not be quite metaphysical enough: “I would leave the question of whether he is guilty or innocent open and ambiguous. The political aspects of the situation didn’t interest me: to me politics is a dirty game and I don’t want to voice my opinions. What is important is that the man who runs away is returning to the state of a wild animal, who has to kill in order to survive.”)
The infamous Vincent Gallo is well cast as Mohammed. But, true to form, he still manages to cement his crazy reputation. Though he performs Mohammed’s extreme feats of survival, running barefoot, eating wood ants and tree bark, the credits mention both “Mr. Gallo’s” water supplier and dietician!
But if ’Essential Killing’ slips the bounds of what might be expected of a political film, ’Route Irish’ dons the mantle with pride – just as you might expect from director Ken Loach. It covers similar ground to the recent TV drama ’Occupation’, the egregious law-defying role played by mercenaries in the carve-up of Iraq. When the company’s CEO announces he’s building the operation to the point where they could “sort out somewhere like Darfur”, it seems chillingly credible. Its unadulterated Blairism, the white man’s burden giving a faux liberal-intervention veneer, combined with the fundamental right of private corporations to make profits at everybody else’s expense.
Liverpudlian seems to be the media’s working class accent of choice, cropping up both in ’Occupation’ and here. I wasn’t entirely sure whether this was deliberate, but the film plays upon the twin popular stereotypes of Scousers. Frankie (played by comedian John Bishop) is the cheeky chappie, the affable rogue. Fergus (Mark Womack) is his sullen explosive Begbie-like mate, the one you hope Frankie won’t bring down the pub with him. But this then gets served the wrong way up. We find Frankie has died on operation before the film even starts and we must follow the brooding Fergus to get to the bottom of it, grief exacerbating his already troubled mind and lashing temper.
It could be the best Loach film for some while, expunging the wayward feelgood elements which marred ’Looking For Eric’. (As I grumbled about at the time.) In fact it’s lurching flashback structure almost relentlessly simulates the post-traumatic stress disorder which has become background noise to Fergus, now he is back to “shopping at Tescos.” (It might make for a good comparison with Shane Meadows’ ’Dead Man’s Shoes’,.)
Fergus’s volatility serves another function, keeping us on our toes. No-one outside of vested interests now supports the costly screw-up that was the invasion of Iraq, it’s a subject we made our minds up about some time ago, a closed book even as the occupation continues. So we need an ambiguous figure to frame it afresh. In an argument with Frankie’s widow, he swaps back and forth between attacking and defending the mercenaries, almost as if he can’t make the distinction.
Interestingly, paralleling ’Essential Killing’,there’s a theme of lack of communication. The film starts and ends with a series of unanswered voicemails. It could be argued that it raises more questions than it adequately deals with. Is male bonding a mere substitute for meaningful relations? With Frankie gone, does Fergus start a fling with his widow out of hope, desperation or just a grab for the most Frankie-like thing left? Is he really concerned with one dead mate more than a whole Iraqi family? But then the film is bookended by unanswered questions, and that seeming weakness may well be a strength. Shouldn’t political films attempt to corrode apparent certainties, rather than reassure them?
Loach films can sometimes have problems with endings, perhaps because they’re depicting situations which are by their nature unending. The one we get here is serviceable. It feints with a good mercenary/ bad mercenary structure, only to reveal at the end that the bosses dunnit. Credible enough of course, but hardly a twist. I was actually hoping for something different. What if Frankie’s death had been down to the very cause Fergus so adamantly refused earlier on, a simple case of “wrong place, wrong time”? His investigation could have revealed corruption and killings along the way, but a smoking gun pointing to every corpse except his buddy’s.
Reproducing the French film poster, for no other reason than it looks cool...