by George Wolf
Surreal, perverse, curious and horrifying, The Act of Killing demands to be seen as much as any film in recent memory.
It is anchored in the atrocities committed during the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965. Paramilitary death squads and ruthless gangsters captured, tortured and killed at will, all under the guise of exterminating “communists.” Over one million Indonesians lost their lives, and those responsible continue to gloat about their actions from a seat of power they still enjoy today.
Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer met with some of the most famous death squad leaders and made them a distasteful yet ultimately brilliant offer: would they re-enact their savagry on camera?
The result is mesmerizing, can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing-stuff.
As they gleefully reveal their love of American film genres, the murderers show themselves as man-children, the result of lives lived running amok without fear of parental or social reprisal. Throwing themselves into the task, they utilize makeup, costumes, props and local extras to film dimly lit drama scenes and extravagant musical numbers, while discussing their bloodlust with a devastating casualness.
Three specific paramilitary leaders take center stage, two of whom show little to no remorse for their actions, explaining that “war crimes are defined by the winners.” The third, an aging grandfather named Anwar Congo, is different. As the ghosts of his past are unearthed, we see a man often struggling to come to grips with himself. While it is not a sympathetic portrait, the transformation in his demeanor is fascinating.
Fearing reprisals, many names in the final credits (including that of the Indonesian co-director) are replaced with “Anonymous.” Two names that do stand out are those of acclaimed documentarians Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line/The Fog of War) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams/Grizzly Man), who serve as executive producers.
Recalling the finest of their work, The Act of Killing is unforgettable. It calls to mind past cruelty, an Orwellian present and an uncertain future, emerging as essential, soul-shaking viewing.