The Act of Killing
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Cast: Anwar Congo, Haji Anif, Syamsul Arifin
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR
Personal anecdote time! The screening of this film that I went to in L.A. was also attended by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive producer Werner Herzog and I got a picture with him because I'm super cool and pushy.
He never smiles.
In 1965, a group of gangsters in Indonesia perpetrated a series of mass killings of communists and Chinese in the name of the government. Although the genocide has stopped, these people are still in power. In 2005, director Joshua Oppenheimer asked Anwar Congo, who himself murdered over a thousand people with wire, to recreate his killings onscreen for a film. The Act of Killing details the six year process of making the film, and the documentary allows us to see a mass murderer through his own eyes. So why does it feel so empty?
If we had been shown their movie – the final product, we could fully understand the scope of how much they do not understand about the torture they inflicted on countless human beings. If we had been shown a full documentary about the process and their antics (one of the gangsters frequently dresses in drag for comedic effect), we would have gained a similar understanding of the nature of evil and humanity and how they can coexist. Unfortunately, what we are shown is a meandering narrative with no real focus that hopscotches back and forth in time, presenting a recklessly uneven distribution of the two types of footage.With an increased emphasis on the documentary aspects in which the gangster friends goof around making their movie, the audience spends more time laughing at their antics than gaining any real emotional connection.
Now, this film hasn’t been critically lauded for nothing. There are many instances that give one pause, including an ex-gangster gleefully recounting the story of stabbing his Chinese girlfriend’s father, the actors pausing the recreation of a killing for the evening prayers, and a man using his own daughter as an actress in a torture scene and trying to calm her down after she bursts into uncontrollable tears. These men are truly incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions and whether it’s because they are truly evil or because they willfully delude themselves to try to avoid feeling guilt is up to the audience to decide.
Therein lies the film’s biggest strength. The Act of Killing deliberately provides no narration or opinion, allowing the viewers to come to their own conclusions. The film’s biggest flaw is not achieving the necessary emotional resonance by straying too far and too frequently into tangential side plots, like a gangster’s unofficial run for office. While it did expose the corruption in the system and the incompetence of the people in office, it is miles away from the film’s central focus.
Despite its flaws, the editing does have strong moments, especially with intercutting footage a gangster spending the day at the mall with his wife and daughter. My one fervent wish, though, is that we’d spent more time in the hallucinogenic dream world of Congo’s imagination. In a world of his own creation, we would be able to understand him on his own terms and The Act of Killing keeps the footage from his film mostly locked away. Without it, the film suffers from issues with overall coherence and gives us a lot of Indonesian history instead of making a sweeping emotional statement (for good or for bad).
There is one powerfully raw moment in which Congo viscerally reacts to the realization of the horrors he has inflicted upon others. This moment is like a sucker-punch to the gut and will stay with me for the rest of my life. That footage lasted for one minute in a two hour documentary.
The Act of Killing is well-intentioned and has a lot of potential, but mostly misses the mark. Here’s to hoping that the extended director’s cut on the DVD goes toward solving some of these problems, because that film could change the world.TL;DR: The Act of Killing squanders its potential by focusing on irrelevant storylines in a meandering documentary narrative.
Should I Spend Money On This? I don't think I know a single person that would be interested in this movie.
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