Movie Review: The Act of Killing
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
“The Act of Killing” will mesmerize, confound and haunt you. From the opening scenes you’ll wonder if what you’re watching is real. And by the end you’ll wish that it had all been a horrible fever dream.
Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s film about Indonesian genocide and its aftermath carries such disturbing power that preeminent documentary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed on to executive-produce the film after seeing it. Austin-based Drafthouse Films is releasing it in theaters.
After the Suharto regime stormed its way into power in Indonesia in 1965, paramilitary forces spent years mercilessly killing anyone they considered “communists.” The deaths totaled in the hundreds of thousands. Despite the unquestioned atrocities, a quote from Voltaire used at the beginning of the film encapsulates the fate of many of the murderers:
“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
One of those trumpet-heralded men was the gangster Anwar Congo, the de facto star of “The Act of Killing.” We meet the thin old man with kinky white hair atop one of the buildings where he performed ritual murder by strangulation.
In between bouts of salsa dancing and talking about his life since the military coup, Congo re-enacts his strangulation technique, describing his methods with bloodless calculation. He seems to relish the attention and speaks of the atrocities as if discussing basic carpentry techniques. He is joined by an oversize attaché, part sumo wrestler, part transvestite, named Herman Koto. The odd couple has a theatrical presence. Their dramatic and aesthetic flourishes speak to their love of American cinema, which the directors of “The Act of Killing” use to frame the retelling of the Indonesian genocide.
Using genre conventions and costumes of American gangster films, musicals and Westerns, Congo and Koto recount their complicit roles in the heinous crimes. One of many disturbing aspects of the film is the characters’ coercion of impoverished North Sumatran citizens to act as extras in the filming, begging for their lives and howling in terror at the murderers.
Lest the audience think that these horrible crimes and unchecked power are things of the past, the filmmakers show rallies by the right-wing paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila, which still acts with impunity. But their role today is more about flexing their muscle than exerting their force. Never put to trial or punished for their crimes, these paramilitary forces are now shown deference and fear-inspired respect by the downtrodden citizenry. And they do not achieve their status solely by intimidation. The filmmakers show how politicians and newspaper publishers are all complicit in the unjust hierarchy.
We never hear from any of the families of the actual victims. But the film takes further steps into surrealism as Congo and other gangsters play versions of their victims in heavily produced and choreographed scenes of torture and murder, replete with bad makeup and special effects. At times a small bit of self-awareness pierces the thick veil of the killers’ grotesque ignorance, as they wonder whether their crimes will come across as inhumane.
That very subtle realization pushes Congo toward a slight moment of consciousness, as he begins to recognize the effect his acts may have had on thousands of families. But the idea that a ruthless assassin who has spent years reveling in his brutality and history of violence deserves any amount of sympathy or catharsis is likely to make the audience as sick as Congo at the film’s end, as he violently retches at the memory of his misdeeds.
At almost two hours, “The Act of Killing” meanders at times, though the discursive nature seems to match Congo and Koto’s besotted mindsets, and the documentary lacks historical context that would give a broader historic understanding of the coup and the killings. But the movie does a terrific job of bringing these killers out of the shadows of the South Pacific and onto the international stage. As surprising as the murders are, the more amazing thing may be that the vain war criminals featured in the film were all such willing participants in their own unveiling.