Horrors Revisited: THE ACT OF KILLING Film Review

By at August 1, 2013 | 4:00 pm | Print

4 / 5 stars

The Act of Killing Movie PosterA colleague once told me that while watching Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, she realized the film’s subject was using the course of his interview to determine whether he’d be going to hell. That subject was controversial former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who eventually arrived at his afterlife location in 2009. In The Act of Killing, executive produced by Morris and Werner Herzog, another national leader of sorts also confronts his past in front of the camera, slowly contemplating his role in the Indonesian massacre of 1965-66, a period of genocidal terror in which he proudly and unconscionably was responsible for some 1,000 deaths.

His name is Anwar Congo, and in director Joshua Oppenheimer’s outlandish, bizarrely painful documentary, there’s no wondering if Congo is considering a cosmic punishment for his actions. He and his cohorts talk about it almost endlessly, hashing out their haunted minds in a fantastically surreal setting: Oppenheimer has asked them to recount their sociopathic past by creating their own movie about it. The act of making this death document is occasionally sickening and repeatedly surprising.

Oppenheimer’s conceit is a daring one, maybe even exploitative to a point, but man, does it work. The self-professed gangsters, murderers of roughly one million “Communists” (any detractors and Chinese nationals), adore American movies and are eager to create their schlocky masterpiece. In an early sequence recalling the “glory days,” Congo and his cartoonish, rotund henchman, Herman Koto, discuss scalping movie theater tickets for Hollywood films and then walking across the street to oversee torture sessions, humming the film’s tunes and whistling at women all the way. With the oddball pair’s easy gait and giddy charm, you’d swear the scene was fictional. But The Act of Killing is just getting started.

Scene from The Act of Killing

With each subsequent setting, just as it seems the film might head toward too long a stretch, Oppenheimer uncovers yet another head-scratching hiccup in humanity. He takes us to a rally for the Pancasila, an orange-clad neo-military group that’s three million strong and apparently ready for anything. We witness a series of conversations and recollections, including a methodical Congo showing the camera how to end someone’s life with a wire around the neck, an option learned from U.S. movies.

When the film within the film kicks into production, The Act of Killing becomes really uncomfortable, blending the subjects’ thirst for fame, hunger for storytelling accuracy, and inexplicable creative choices. (Koto, for instance, continually shows up heavily lipsticked and dressed as a showgirl, like some despotic Divine.) Oppenheimer and his team of editors know just how to nail the hypocrisy and lunacy of it all, cutting from a massacre scene that could have been in Platoon to the military heavies discussing the merits and risks of leaving the sequence in their movie. Cut to participating child actors who can’t stop crying after the cameras stop rolling. Then to the military leader who earlier bragged about his taste for raping teenagers in the old days. This is the redefinition of insanity.

Just how does a man lose respect for life? And what happens if he never had it in the first place? These are the persistent questions as Congo takes on different “roles,” and begins to emerge as someone who’s been hiding his internal disgust and sense of reason for decades. It’s proof that the power of movies is a formidable one. And that a world filled with hatred, corruption and fear could make even the most confident killer want to puke up his guts.

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Trackbacks For This Post

  1. […] “This is the redefinition of insanity.” – Norm Schrager, Meet In The Lobby […]

  2. […] won this year’s South by Southwest Audience Award with this follow-up to his acclaimed The Act of Killing, about the mad genocidal leaders of 1960s Indonesia (featured at IFFB 2013). If you’re not at the […]

  3. […] the bizarre Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer met with some of the most vicious and legendary killers of the 1960s […]


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