Wednesday, February 22, 2012


(Canada/Germany - 2011)

Not to be confused with the 1987 Michael Caine vehicle THE WHISTLE BLOWER, another tragically underseen conspiracy gem, this riveting, hard-hitting thriller, inspired by true events, got a lot of publicity on news shows but still didn't get much theatrical exposure.  That's a shame, because this is a suspenseful, tension-filled film with a searing performance by Rachel Weisz as dedicated, by-the-book Nebraska cop Kathy Bolkovac.  The year is 1999.  Recently divorced, losing custody of her daughter, and unable to get a transfer to Atlanta and be near her ex-husband's new job and her daughter for visitation, Bolkovac falls into a $100,000 tax-free, six-month contract with a security company that's part of a UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia.  Her plan is to use that money to move to Atlanta in six months, and she's told by her associates that they're just in Bosnia to be a presence.  However, she soon uncovers a massive sex-trafficking and sex-slavery ring that involves not just the local criminal element, but also the local police, as well as numerous peacekeeping officials, and none of the bureaucratic higher-ups seem very interested in hearing her story.  Bolkovac's only allies are human rights lawyer Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave) and UN internal affairs official Peter Ward (David Strathairn).  Director/co-writer Larysa Kondracki does a terrific job establishing a nerve-wracking sense of paranoia as Bolkovac finds an already-stressful environment even more dangerous with threatening voicemails, discovering her phone's been tapped, and she's ignored and thrown under the bus by bureaucratic officials--from an uncooperative UN repatriation official (Monica Bellucci) to a dismissive, condescending human resources head (William Hope).

Weisz does some of the best work of her career here, and while liberties were no doubt taken with the story and various supporting characters composited for the sake of time and clarity, what's here is a top-notch, relentlessly fast-paced thriller.  Kondracki doesn't shy away from the brutality inflicted on the trafficked girls, and it's often unpleasant viewing, but THE WHISTLEBLOWER is one of the best films of 2011 that nobody saw.  (R, 112 mins)

(Poland/Norway/Ireland/Hungary/France - 2011)

The winner of the Special Jury Prize and Best Actor (Vincent Gallo) at the 2010 Venice Film Festival only managed a VOD release in the US in the fall of 2011 before quietly appearing on DVD and Netflix Instant a month ago. The subject matter was a guaranteed magnet for controversy, though famed Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski (DEEP END, THE SHOUT) isn't really interested in politics as he is in a grueling depiction of survival.  In Afghanistan, a terrorist (Gallo) of undetermined nationality (Skolimowski envisioned the character as a John Walker Lindh-type) kills three American contractors with a rocket launcher and is immediately apprehended by the US military.  He's interrogated and waterboarded before being transported with other prisoners to a holding facility somewhere in eastern Europe.  When the transport vehicle he's in skids off an icy mountain road and down a hill, Gallo manages to escape.  What follows is some of the most rigorous, exposed-to-the-elements filmmaking that an actor has ever endured for their craft.  Gallo runs through snow barefoot, falls down a steep cliff and plunges into an icy lake, eats ants, tree bark, and a just-caught fish on camera, and even forcibly helps himself to a breastfeeding mother's one available nipple (the one moment that comes off as a distracting, gimmicky trangression and seems gratuitously "Gallo-esque").  He's wearing a hood in the waterboarding scene, but I have no doubt that it was really him under it.  After all, this is a career provocateur who directed himself getting a real, on-camera blowjob from Chloe Sevigny in THE BROWN BUNNY, put a hex on Roger Ebert's colon, and tried to sell his semen online for the asking price of $1 million.  The lactation bit aside, Gallo is utterly convincing throughout, and it says a lot that he took top acting honors at the Venice fest for a performance where he never utters a word.  There's almost no dialogue once Gallo escapes military custody, and even when Emmanuelle Seigner appears late in the film, her character is mute. 

There's no message or ideology to ESSENTIAL KILLING.  You aren't asked to like or identify with the protagonist.  It's a tough, arduous film about animal instinct and doing what is necessary to survive.  Stunning cinematography by Adam Sikora, who also shot the incredible visuals of THE MILL AND THE CROSS.  Never a prolific filmmaker, Skolimowski's only made three films in the last 20 years, while occasionally acting in others (he's probably best known to US audiences as the Russian villain in the 1985 hit WHITE NIGHTS, but more recently, he appeared as Naomi Watts' loathsome uncle in David Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES), and ESSENTIAL KILLING shows that the 73-year-old director still has a lot to offer. (Unrated, 85 mins)

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