There’s really no other way to put it: You have never seen a movie quite like The Act of Killing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s bold, earth-shattering film is what all documentaries should aspire to be; fearless, thought-provoking, and inventive. In dramatic and chilling fashion it shatters all notions of what a movie can and should be able to achieve.
What Oppenheimger has bravely done is explore the ugly collision of celebrity culture with human depravity, by interviewing many of the men responsible for the slaughter of thousands in an Indonesian coup in 1965. The men, who gleefully refer to themselves as gangsters, were once common thugs with a passion for American cinema. As death squad leaders they took a sadistic pleasure in employing the acts of violence they saw in the movies on their victims. In the present, they live the life of rock stars, recognized on the streets and praised for their indiscriminate genocide of Communists, intellectuals, and other undesirables all those years ago. They aren’t just above the law, they are the law, and even in their advanced age they are a lethal part of the political system and a constant reminder of what happens to those who oppose authority. Not that anybody would dare try. The people all know the stories, of men, women, and children beheaded, strangled with metal wire, and whole villages wiped out in the span of minutes.
One of these terrible men is Anwar Congo, and it isn’t long before he emerges as the man Oppenheimer is most interested in following. Anwar, who some say murdered more than 1000 people with his own bare hands, choosing strangulation because it was less messy, has an idea to make a movie. Not just any movie, but one that glorifies their many killings and proves that they were the baddest gangsters of all. These men don’t feel a lick of remorse for what they’ve done. Rather, they’re quite happy about it, and want others to know it. This shocking realization is just one of many moments that will leave you doubled over with fear that men like Anwar exist and are allowed to roam free.
The next moment that may have you questioning humanity is the first time Anwar or his bulbous right-hand man Herman make you laugh, because when they aren’t talking about beheading some innocent victim, they seem like alright guys. It’s a disgusting feeling to begin to actually like someone like Anwar, and you’ll probably want to take a shower immediately, but he has the affable demeanor of an old grandfather who occasionally says the wrong thing and is stuck in his ways. And while most of the men remain just as nasty as ever, even relishing in their lack of conscience (one fondly reminisces on the raping of a 14-year old girl), we see the kernel of something different in Anwar. He’s been having nightmares, seeing the faces of those he killed, and it’s beginning to wear on him. This movie will force him to confront his true feelings, and whether there is any remorse lingering in that dark heart.
The movie-within-a-movie is both hypnotically surreal and more terrifying than any horror you’re likely to see this year or any other. Utilizing the styles of their favorite American movies, we are treated to dazzling, picturesque dance numbers (including Herman dressed like a fat dancing girl for some reason), followed by the recreation of a village being burned to the ground while the people wail in anguish. The power of cinema is put on full display in impact these reenactments have on those involved. Women and children involved in the village burning are unable to contain their despair, continuing long after filming has shut down. Even Anwar himself begins to question himself, shedding his macho bravado after portraying the victim of a torturous interrogation he once led. Fortunately, Oppenheimer mostly stays out of the frame for much of the film and barely bothers to address his subjects. But at one crucial juncture he does speak up, and it’s when Anwar appears to be at an emotional crossroads. After watching the torture scene one more time, this time with his young grandsons, a clearly devastated Anwar wonders if the pain his victims felt could compare to what he felt while filming the scene. It’s a ludicrous, callous question, and Oppenheimer deals it a fitting rebuke by saying their torment was far worse, because it wasn’t just some stupid movie.
There is so much going on in The Act of Killing, so much Oppenheimer brings to light, that it could be studied for years and still there would be more to discern. Perhaps the most startling takeaway is the the stunning obliviousness of Anwar and the other death squad leaders. If there was an E! Network Indonesia, these goons would be all over it hosting their own reality shows. They exist in a bubble not unlike that of tabloid toppers like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, emboldened and enabled by a cadre of “Yes Men” who tell them every vice is a virtue, and every misdeed an expression of personal freedom.
The Act of Killing is a film of such unimaginable power and visceral energy that it’s no surprise to see renowned documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris listed as producers. Frankly, what Oppenheimer has achieved doesn’t just equate to their finest works, it towers above them and practically everything else that has been released this year. It will leave you emotionally shaken, devastated, confused, and pissed off, but when all is said and done The Act of Killing is a film that must be experienced to be believed.