The Act of Killing is one of the best films of the year, certainly the most important, and yet it made me think of Hot Shots Part Deux. The parody of the Rambo movies includes a scene where our hero Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen) continuously fires an automatic weapon. A little kill counter appears on the bottom of the screen, and title cards inform us the movie is more violent Robocop and Total Recall. Eventually the screen trumpets, “BLOODIEST MOVIE EVER.” The joke is about how movies treat death cheaply, and The Act of Killing is its complete opposite. By its end, we watch as memory warps the soul of murderer.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer finds a unique way to experiment with the documentary form. His subject is Anwar Congo, who’s responsible for killing one thousand alleged communists in 1965. He was gangster back then, at least until he was promoted to the leader of a notorious death squad. The preferred method of death was strangling with wire; Congo eagerly demonstrates his method to the camera without remorse.
Oppenheimer gives Congo a challenge: he wants Congo and his squad members to reenact their memories of the killings on film. Congo gleefully agrees (before he was killing, Congo sold movie tickets on the black market, and he possesses a deep admiration of Hollywood). What follows is surreal: gangsters and murderers direct innocent women and children to act if they’re being slaughterered. The interrogation scenes are even more brutal.
By showing a dramatization of real events, The Act of Killing is about much more than Congo’s exploits. It asks questions about exploitation in the movies, and how the line between style and good taste can blur. Without any context, Congo’s recreations are no worse than the typical gangster or war film we see nowadays (they borrow from a lot of genres to tell their story). But because this actually happened, a sense of immorality through cognitive dissonance hangs over what we see. Congo is not the only one who experiences these delusions: there’s a long scene where Congo and other gangsters go on a talk show, and the young host celebrates death with her audience. When society celebrates war crimes, it is easy for a man like Congo to rewrite his legend.
There are other, more humane perspectives in the documentary, but they’re largely on the sidelines. One man does not come from a place of regret: Congo’s colleague watches as they recreate a death scene, and he flatly remarks that their film is a tacit admission of guilt so they might end up in jail. It’s as if the man has made peace with his crimes, and he wants them buried. It’s a cowardly perspective, but a necessary one since it’s a reprieve from the insanity surrounding Congo.
The Act of Killing would be unwatchable if the camera weren’t so stubborn: at times, it feels as if Oppenheimer wants to scrub the project and he thinks to himself, “No, I owe it to the movie to get this right.” This dedication to horrible crimes extends to the viewer. The Act of Killing is transfixing. It’s more than rubbernecking: Congo deserves Oppenheimer’s unflinching eye, even if he does not realize it yet.
Parts of this documentary feel like traditional documentary mixed with folk art. The murderers know how to construct a powerful image: there’s a surreal sequence where dancers pay homage toward Congo as they walk toward him from a gigantic fish statue. Oppenheimer’s silence enhances this sense of objectivity – he lets the killers speak for themselves – but then he says one thing to Congo, and he can no longer deny what he did. It’s downright astonishing that Oppenheimer captured his ugly moment of contrition. It would be unfair to describe what happens, so let’s just say that his reaction unmistakably visceral and ugly. The Act of Killing has no interesting in being the bloodiest movie ever. Through dedication and some luck, we watch inexorably as the film forces us to consider the moral cost of humanity as its worst.