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Movies: Essential Killing ***

Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing has enjoyed some success on the festival circuit, where it has been described in hushed tones as a political film.

In fact, it's anything but, and though its plot involves a Muslim man who's subjected to extraordinary rendition, this is merely the premise for a straightforward chase movie that's technically impressive but thematically shallow.

Vincent Gallo stars as an unnamed middle-eastern gent whom we first meet in an Afghan cave, where he's hiding from a small group of American soldiers. He is armed with some class of bazooka, and when they get too close he lets rip, killing three men. Not the cleverest move, as it turns out, because when the US military catch him they take an understandably dim view of the whole business.

After being beaten and waterboarded, he is transported to an unspecified country in eastern Europe, possibly Hungary, where further unpleasantness no doubt awaits. But after an accident in open country, he escapes from his crashed vehicle and sets out across a snowbound landscape pursued by a small army of soldiers. In a brilliant, extended, wordless sequence (in fact the whole film is pretty much dialogue-free), Gallo's character shows just what a desperate person will do to survive: he kills, steals and endures dreadful hardships as he attempts to elude his trackers.

Gallo suffers eloquently, and at times reminded me of Jesus on a stick. But that is all he does and once Skolimowski has established his story's visual momentum, it goes precisely nowhere. Nowhere good anyway, and as the director attempts to string out a thin plot, he resorts to ever more absurd extremes, a scene involving a starving man and a hefty wet nurse being especially regrettable.

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