'The Act of Killing': Unique and engrossing
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A unique and uniquely unsettling documentary, "The Act of Killing" approaches its subject -- stated, in case you were curious, in its title -- from an angle well suited to its medium. The movie opens with Voltaire's centuries-old observation concerning the circumstances under which killing is not forbidden, that is, when accompanied by marching and trumpets. It then takes us to contemporary Indonesia, and a text prologue describes the military taking power there in 1965 and the killing of more than 1 million Communists, "Communists" or suspected "Communists" and their families that was part of this coup.
The killing was done by paramilitary members and gangsters, and the movie begins by focusing on a couple of them who are still with us, honored citizens, affluent and free: Anwar Congo, onetime paramilitary leader, lean, handsome, elder-statesmanlike; and gangster Herman Koto, tubby, voluble, and not, as we'll see, shy about his penchant for cross-dressing. They wander through the streets of an Indonesia city, looking for volunteers to play "victims." Their project, initiated by this film's director, Joshua Oppenheimer, is to re-enact what they consider to be their heroic slaughtering deeds in the styles of the films that most inspired them back in the day.
"Movie theater gangsters," they call their back-in-the-day selves, and the screams of their real-life victims could barely be heard above the ego din of their posturing self-regard and sense that the killing they were doing was absolutely right. "There's too much democracy in Indonesia today," one of the paramilitary men grouses to Oppenheimer as he practices his golf swing. As Anwar and his buddies create scenarios for their self-celebration, they let their imaginations and aesthetics run wild, and come up with several varieties of appalling kitsch. Anwar concocts a sort of gangster movie, while Herman goes for a musical, complete with himself sitting in sort of throne, wearing a regal gown while showgirls serenade him with "Born Free." It's all bracingly ghastly, to be sure.
After a while, a funny thing happens: Anwar starts to reveal something like a conscience. Where before he could barely be bothered to hold a thought of disdain for his victims, as filming progresses and he's compelled to cast himself in a victim role, he talks about his nightmares, and eventually his fears. He sees his self-proclaimed heroism as something hollow. His self-disgust registers more palpably in a scene near the end in which he literally violently sickens himself.
Oppenheimer, who's also an author and a conceptual artist, is not so naïve a filmmaker to buy this as evidence of the man's spiritual redemption. But as the moviemaker has noted in interviews, it's plain that Anwar is haunted. After this experience, the likelihood of Anwar being at peace with himself is extremely remote. The movie is not at all heavy-handed in its suggestion that this is entirely apt.
My only quibble with the movie is that it ought to have turned its camera on itself a little more. With a conceptual framework as loaded as the one this movie constructs, I'd say there's almost a moral imperative to transparency of a sort. But it's something I only missed in the aftermath of the movie. While it's unspooling before you, "The Act of Killing" is chilly, engrossing stuff, and what it leaves you to mull over is deep and upsetting indeed.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.