CAPSULE: THE ACT OF KILLING (2012)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

FEATURING: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry

PLOT: A Western documentarian encourages leaders of Indonesian death squads, now grandfathers and respected elders of paramilitary groups, to make a movie proudly re-enacting the massacres they committed as young gangsters, on condition that he can film them behind-the-scenes as they work.

Still from The Act of Killing (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though gut-wrenching, the movie itself is not really weird—although the outtakes of the film the gangsters produce (particularly the musical numbers) reveal something authentically surreal (in a heartbreakingly ironic mode).

COMMENTS: The Act of Killing may be the most moral prank ever pulled. Retired Indonesian gangsters responsible for killing thousands of alleged Communists and ethnic Chinese, especially those who failed to come up with protection money, believe they will be creating an epic film to celebrate their heroically homicidal contributions to the current dictatorship; instead, they are the unwitting stars of a psychodrama that is one of the most frightening and nuanced testaments to the banality of evil ever made. Asked to recreate their greatest massacres, the men come up with amateur productions that would be hilarious, if the real life backstory wasn’t so monumentally tragic. Pink-clad dancing girls (“eye candy,” explains one director) emerge swaying from the mouth of a giant concrete goldfish. In a sagebrush-inspired scene, a woman is gang raped—but she’s played by the heaviest of the killers, in drag. In front of a waterfall, ghosts of the dead hang medals around their executioners’ necks, while “Born Free” plays. Insulated in a cocoon of propaganda that treats them as national heroes, it never occurs to these retired killers to feel shame, and their lack of comprehension of the way outsiders view them manifests itself in bizarrely unselfconscious narratives. The Act of Killing could be seen as a psychological survey of the various ways killers cope with the dried blood on their hands. Some of the gangsters, such as the buffoonish Herman (who is oddly eager to dress up like  for the camera—there is a strange undercurrent of homoeroticism running through all of the gangsters’ friendships), come off as completely clueless. Others, like the bloodcurdling Adi, embrace their evil, arguing that the winners make the rules. He takes pride in his ability to own his own cruelty, seeing it as a sign of mental strength. Then, there is Anwar. Anwar has nightmares about the innocent people he’s killed, but he complains of them in the matter-of-fact way a fishing buddy might complain he has a touch of arthritis in his knee. As the movie goes on, it focuses its lens more and more on Anwar, on his smile that curiously fades as he watches the daily rushes; he seems to be the only one of the major players with the capacity to feel remorse. Is it possible to feel sympathy for someone who bluntly admits he’s strangled more than 1,000 people? Or, is Anwar’s budding conscience just another act for the camera—has he intuited what his director needs from him? Regardless, Anwar is the greatest and most complex character you’ll see on screen this year—his naïve dialogue would be almost impossible for a writer to convincingly script, his curiously opaque facial reactions almost impossible for an actor to convincingly perform. The Act of Killing far transcends a simple political event, however tragic, and becomes a movie about the intersections of human perception and reality: about our blind spots, about how we create and recreate our identities, about the strategies we adopt to justify the unthinkable. It’s movies inside of movies, arising from guilty subconsciouses. Kill a man and you go to prison. Kill a thousand men, and you celebrate the feat by making a movie where dancing girls in pink chiffon strut out of a giant goldfish’s mouth.

The Act of Killing also contains some of the most chillingly bizarre credits you’ll ever see: about three fourths of the entries read “Anonymous.” Two of the greatest living documentarians, and , were so impressed by an early cut of The Act of Killing that they signed on as executive producers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…we spend the next two hours in the company of laughing, joking mass-murderers, blithely revisiting their blood-drenched past in a manner that is at once insanely surreal and distressingly domestic… even in his most hallucinogenic moments, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself could not have dreamed up images to match such eeriness.”–Mark Kermode, The Observer (contemporaneous)

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