‘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.


News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

'Five Star': A coming-of-age story about Brooklyn's gang…

'Five Star' tells a coming-of-age story about Brooklyn's gang culture at the Tribeca Film Festival.

National

New statue of Penn State's Paterno set for…

By David DeKokHARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Fundraising for a new statue depicting Joe Paterno "as the man he was and not Joe the football coach"…

Local

NYPD detective shoots partner: DA

A New York City Police detective was arrested early Thursday and charged with driving under the influence while on the clock.

Local

Judge strikes down NY limits on donations to…

A federal judge on Thursday reluctantly struck down New York's limits on donations to independent political action committees as unconstitutional, potentially ushering in a new…

Movies

Tribeca: 'Goodbye to All That' star Paul Schneider…

Paul Schneider talks about his new film "Goodbye to All That," not acting too much and how he'd rather indulge in simple pleasures than play the scene.

The Word

Taylor Swift battles paparazzi daily at Tribeca penthouse

We're entranced by these photos of poor Taylor Swift leaving her Tribeca apartment.

Movies

'A Brony Tale' documents men who are into…

Ashleigh Ball, a voice actress on "My Little Pony," speaks to us.

Movies

Tribeca: Nikki Reed on going funny for a…

"Intramural" star Nikki Reed talks about being the straight person in a broad comedy, spending time in Austin and how "Thirteen" was a "miracle."

NHL

Rangers turn up shot blocking in Game 3…

Game 3 of the Rangers-Flyers opneing round series was not a return to John Tortorella hockey.

NFL

2014 NFL Mock Draft: Updated, new April 24…

2014 NFL Mock Draft: Updated, new April 24 version

MLB

5 infamous pitcher ejections for cheating

Never fear Yankees fans, Michael Pineda is far from the first MLB pitcher to be thrown out of a game for cheating.

MLB

Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda ejected for using pine…

Pineda was thrown out of the game against the Red Sox Wednesday for having pine tar on his neck -- for all the world to see.

Parenting

New study: Inside the wage gap between boys…

According to a new study, there's a wage gap between boys and girls, with boys earning more allowance for less chores.

Tech

From Apple TV to Fire TV, big changes…

Apple is set to launch a new generation of it's Apple TV, which grossed over $1 billion in 2013. But competition from Amazon and Google looms.

Style

Katy Perry releases a new Claire’s collection

Katy Perry expands her empire by releasing an accessories collection at Claire's.

Style

MAC & Proenza Schouler collection unveiled

MAC Cosmetics is releasing a new collection with Proenza Schouler.