‘The Act of Killing’ will leave you questioning humanity

Former Indoneisan death squad members recreate their murders in bizarre ways in "The Act of Killing." Credit: Drafthouse Films
Former Indoneisan death squad members recreate their murders in bizarre ways in “The Act of Killing.”
Credit: Drafthouse Films

‘The Act of Killing’
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

Examinations of genocide tend to focus on the victims. “The Act of Killing,” a legitimately shocking and unsettling experimental documentary, not only dwells on the killers, but on those who never went punished. Between 1965 and 1966, an estimated half million Communists and liberals died in the wake of a failed coup in Indonesia. The government rounded up a coterie of surly psychopaths — gangsters and anyone else predisposed to gorily dispatching en masse — and set them up as an actual death squad. These men are still alive, still around and casually remorseless, as they’ve never been given a good reason to feel bad about their actions. They even boast about strangling victims, cutting off heads and other things that would turn the ordinary stomach.

How on earth does one portray these monsters without falling back on simple self-righteousness? American documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer found a way. His film gains their confidence — not hard, since all they want to do is brag about their bloody accomplishments — and feeds them endless rope with which to hang themselves. All deep into middle age, they look like retirees who like to kick back and fish after a life of hard work. They act like a boy’s club, like overgrown children who were never taught the absolute basics of decency. They dare the Hague to summon them for war crimes and, in the most horrifying-comic scene, go on a talk show where the gregarious, smiling host sunnily asks them about their deeds, as though they were about to bring out zoo animals. When one of them, Anwar, whose body count tops 1,000, is led by the filmmakers to finally empathize with his victims, one of the more manly ones scolds him, saying “You feel horrified because your mind is weak.”

It’s not enough that they regularly spout deluded, blood curdling lines about how war crimes are determined by humans. Oppenheimer’s flashiest move is to get them to recreate their crimes — not straight-up but in gawdy movie form. They recreate gangster films, westerns, even musicals, only where play-victims are brutally assassinated. Watching their recorded actions does little to shake them from their shells; they laugh and crack jokes, as though they were watching footage of them skateboarding. Oppenheimer doesn’t contextualize the historical events, which is, perversely, a good thing: It allows us to wallow in their cloistered worldview. Going from nightmare to dark comedy and back again, it’s a testament to how when the baddies win, evil simply becomes the norm.


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