Dire, audacious, and nauseating in its portrayal of cruelty, The Act of Killing is a self-described “documentary of the imagination,” exemplary as a history lesson, a character study, and an argument for confronting the transgressions of the past. It’s a surreal and must-see experience.
While in Indonesia researching a film about labour unions, director Joshua Oppenheimer heard whisperings of the 1965-66 genocide and discovered that the perpetrators of the atrocities were eager to brag about their four-decade-old exploits in graphic detail. He decided his next film would allow the killers to tell their own stories, and to re-enact them as grisly pageants complete with costumes, makeup, and props. The Act of Killing documents the consequences of that process.
At the center is Anwar Congo, a 1965 executioner responsible for the deaths of at least 1,000 people. It is a doggedly miasmic environment: Anwar matter-of-factly describes gory body dumpings and repugnant murder scenes (“Spontaneously, I walked over to him and cut his head off”). Anwar’s henchmen are so comfortable with death that they joke with unconcern about whether various scenes of strangulation will actually kill the actors. “War crimes are defined by the winners,” a death-squad leader points out. “I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.”
By empowering the voices of Anwar and others when they’ve never been called to account for their barbarism, by repeating incomprehensible iniquity, Oppenheimer himself treads on dicey moral ground. Playing make believe with mass murderers who think nothing of singing and dancing about mass murder, he risks the possibility of psychological exoneration. However, by humanizing psychopathic behavior, The Act of Killing is unparalleled in its unsettling perspective on the dementias associated with dictatorial extremes.
Indeed, The Act of Killing is bizarre to the point of trippiness, utilizing one of the most deranged underlying concepts anywhere. Your hold on sanity might fray, though that’s not so much Oppenheimer’s fault as that of the film’s bloodcurdling subject. (A heaven/hell comparison on the rape of a 14-year-old girl and the mutilation of a “doll” in front of a weeping father are particularly unpalatable.) Yet it’s a lucid portrait of evil, a bold historical reckoning that raises all kinds of provocative questions about the sins of nations in transition and about how important it is for those in power to control the narrative.
The cumulative impact is devastating, and far from a simple Western condemnation of another country’s brutality. The killers’ boasts put a harsh spotlight on all celebrations of bloodshed, from Hollywood to the op-ed pages. Presenting a terrifying view of a hidden holocaust and a moral apocalypse in which people’s most basic qualities have become twisted beyond recognition, The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in filmmaking, documentary or otherwise. Intellectually adventurous, it’s a supreme testament to film’s capacity for inquiry and remembrance. Executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris have rightly championed its potential impact.
Seen through the fantasy lives of the killers, as cowboys, gangsters, and musical heroes, Oppenheimer cruelly exposes the process by which even the most damning truths can be transmuted into self-mythologizing fictions. Oppenheimer technically explodes the form he employs, thematically demonstrates how easily the passive spectator becomes an unlikely abettor, and narratively forces his subjects to recognize their moral culpability in systematic ethnic cleansing. Few can claim such a level of success.
With its relentless focus on the pathologies, both personal and sociopolitical, that enable ordinary human beings to commit widespread extermination of their own species, The Act of Killing is resolutely uncathartic, treating artifice as a roundabout path to truth. It’s a disorienting film that disturbs us in unusual ways, investigating the nature of documentary, the persistence of wrongdoing, and the intertwined ways movies function in our culture and in our minds.
Relying on multiple defense mechanisms – delusional grandiosity, repression, denial – the killers are merrily sadistic, behaving with crowing, unrepentant impunity. Anwar is a charismatic devil, but reliving the past gradually breaks down these defenses. This near-masterpiece about propaganda and vanity as instruments of power and terror ends on an sustained, righteous money shot: a monster who could have been a good man suffocates, dry heaving, spewing phlegm and saliva.
Profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering, The Act of Killing is luridly seductive, darkly comic, physically revolting – something that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater. Above all, it’s edifying and essential cinema.