Movie Review ~ The Act of Killing

The Facts

Synopsis: A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

Stars: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Between 1965 and 1966 more than 500,000 Indonesian men, women, and children were killed by members of death squads tasked with clearing Indonesia of communists.  Men that were small time hoods or self-titled gangsters were given full authority to extort information from innocent people before dispatching them in various horrific methods.

These men have never been held accountable for their crimes against humanity so it’s pretty astounding at the chutzpah of filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer to invite these evil-doers to participate in The Act of Killing, a documentary which affords the leaders of the death squads the opportunity to reenact the murders they committed via various Hollywood tropes.  From gangster pics to fantasy epics to musicals, murder, reality, and cinema collide in a film that’s hard to watch but essential viewing at the same time.

This is one film I circled around for quite some time.  I couldn’t bring myself to see it in theaters or take a screening copy for a spin…I knew what was waiting for me and I recognized I had to be in the right frame of mind to take it all in.  So, with the Oscars coming up where this is likely to take home the award for Best Documentary Feature, I knew it was time to see it.

The experience of seeing the film early on a Sunday morning is one I won’t soon forget as the images it leaves behind and the feelings it stirred are not to be forgotten.  The brazen callousness of a swath of misogynistic men is enough to turn even the strongest of stomachs and when you couple it with graphic details of how they achieved their mass genocide it becomes nearly unbearable.

Still, Oppenheimer is unrelenting in pushing the limits of what the audience can stand.  It’s not that the film is graphic in a bloody sense but that it’s graphic in its depiction of man’s inhumanity to man.  Hearing men relate the stories of decapitations as easily as if discussing their last trip to an Applebee’s, as an audience member I kept looking desperately for remorse in the souls of these subjects…but there’s none to be found.

Well, almost.  The film’s most extraordinary scene comes near the end when Anwar Congo (who would be called colorful if it wasn’t known he alone killed over 1,000 people) finally seems to get what his actions have caused not only to the dead but to the friends and family that have gone on living.  It’s powerful stuff and though it doesn’t endear us to him in any way, it provides a moment where we can see a crack in a dark veneer.

Truly one of those films you have to be in the right mood to see, The Act of Killing is a one of a kind documentary that may very well deserve the Oscar this year.  Make sure to watch the entire credits to see just how many people worked on this film that chose to be listed as Anonymous.  Remember that these men responsible for so many deaths remain unpunished…and the fear of retribution for those that still live in Indonesia is great. Bravo to them for their contributions on this important piece of filmmaking.

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