Not only is it one of the most inventive documentaries in recent memory, it may very well be the best movie you’ll see in any theater this year.
Without question, it’s been a pretty ho-hum summer at the box office. While comic book hokum and nerd-pandering fare like “Man of Steel,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “Kick Ass 2” made tons of dinero and inspired countless chats on Reddit and IGN about the “deeper subtext” of the juvenilely fascistic genre offerings, filmgoers in pursuit of something a little bit more nourishing have had scant cinematic options over the last few months.
“The Act of Killing” -- a film with the backing of documentary titans Errol Morris and Werner Herzog -- is the kind of movie that comes out of absolutely nowhere and then proceeds to hammer you like a typhoon in the middle of the night. Amid so much depressing, distressing and woefully infantile pop culture, the documentary -- a joint Danish/Norwegian/British collaboration, helmed by a virtual unknown named Joshua Oppenheimer -- serves as a much-needed palate cleanser, and in some ways, an even more-necessary reminder that the cinematic form can be used to do something more than simply arouse the senses and kill time.
The premise behind the documentary is one of the most inventive I’ve heard in quite some time. Not content with simply interviewing a bunch of paramilitary brutes about their murderous forays during the Cold War, the filmmakers behind “The Act of Killing” asked the same gangsters that were responsible for the deaths of nearly a million communists to recreate their own war crimes on camera. The two primary subjects of the film -- an eerie Nelson Mandela-doppelganger named Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, an obese mobster that spends half the film in drag -- both served as “movie theater gangsters” back in Suharto’s heyday, making a living off screening Al Pacino and John Wayne flicks when they weren’t murdering alleged communists. In interviews, they frankly discuss how Hollywood mobster movies influenced their paramilitary activities; they used to merely pummel dissidents to a pulp, but after watching “The Godfather,” they decided to start strangling commies to death with steel wire instead. From the outset of the film, Congo brags about using the method to personally kill about a thousand people.
Despite being self-described mass murderers, neither Congo or Koto seem too disturbed about their past doings. In Indonesia, they’re actually seen as heroes to some extent, being the founders of a paramilitary death squad called Pancasila Youth. They do interviews on state-sponsored television, where the audiences cheer as they reflect on “crushing the communists” half a century ago. The current heads of the organization appear to be a bunch of bored hyper-consumers -- when not giving rabble rousing speeches while draped in their red and black camo regalia, they make off-color jokes about women while golfing and amble about aimlessly in shopping malls with their families. Yeah, they’ve killed a few people, they casually remark, but it just doesn’t bother them.
Congo and Koto’s excitement regarding the project is so unexpectedly exuberant, you can’t help but get swept up in their emotional investment in the project. Congo, the more solemn of the pair, has a very frank, almost sterile disposition, serving as a perfect foil to Koto’s hyper-charismatic, overly talkative nature. They begin the film by taking the documentary crew over for a recreation of a house raid sequence. It takes them a while to find a family that’s willing to take part, but eventually, they manage to coax a few villagers. Congo and Koto then bark orders and start manhandling the actors’ children like rag dolls. Real tears stream from their eyes as their mother feigns -- perhaps -- absolute terror. And then; scene’s over, everybody claps, and a chuckle is had by all. That is, except for the still weeping children, whom have a hard time distinguishing make-believe from real life sadism.
Ever the cinephiles, both Congo and Koto want mix in some genre-stylings into the project. A major recurring motif in the film involves a dance troupe doing a number after emerging from a giant statue of a trout. After telling us that the term “gangster” more or less translates into “free men” in Indonesian, it’s perhaps not surprising that they want the film to end with a triumphant musical finale, with the ghosts of dead communists giving Congo a gold medal -- for “sending them to heaven” -- while a rendition of “Born Free” plays in the background.
They show the film crew the rooftop were so many an alleged communist were brutally strangled. Periodically, Congo and Koto meet up with some of their old paramilitary buddies, and debate whether or not what they did was “sadistic.” Congo tells us he doesn’t feel “good” about killing so many people, per se, but what can he do…the past is the past, after all. At one point, one of the old paramilitary buddies tells Congo a story about how his stepfather was murdered by gangsters and he had to live on the outskirts of town out of fear of being killed himself. Then, the group stages an interrogation scene, where the “captive” starts shedding real tears of horror. He begs for his life, as snot shoots out of his nostrils. In the next scene, Koto talks about how he used to harass the Chinese for bribes. We then watch Koto entering a couple of shops, seeking tributes from his “constituents.” All of the men behind the counters tremble as they reach for their monies. The movie never tell us whether that scene was “staged” or the real thing.
While Koto remains a fairly flat character throughout the documentary (despite, at one point, embarking upon a failed political campaign, which mostly consisted of him driving up and down the slums of Jakarta in a Transformers shirt), Congo goes through a drastic metamorphosis as the film unfolds. His mannerisms begin to change after he stages a simulation of a village-side raid -- a “recreation” that leaves children sobbing and at least one woman -- who may or may not have been a child of a slain communist, or perhaps even a persecuted communist herself -- in a near-catatonic state. “I don’t remember things being this bad,” he says as straw huts burn in the background. Later, he tells a story about being haunted by a man he beheaded; both that particular slaying, and a visualization of nightmares Congo had about the executed ghost, are then “filmed” for the documentary.
Where things really take a turn is when Congo plays a communist who is interrogated, and then executed. Clearly rattled by the incident, he eventually breaks down into tears when he sees the segment played on a video recording. The film concludes with Congo revisiting the same site where he strangled a countless number of people -- which now appears to be a Laundromat -- and dry heaving.
The premise sounds pretty challenging, and in the hands of most filmmakers, it would have been a remarkable failure. However, Oppenheimer crafts an absolutely incredible character study, not only telling the best cinematic “banality of evil” story in years, but a film that fearlessly confronts the tried-and-true notions we have about what constitutes both humanity and inhumanity.
How easily it would have been for Oppenheimer to just say that all these people were sociopaths, and that their unconscionable actions were the sole root of such incalculable miseries. However, Oppenheimer seems to pursue a more daunting, complex, and frankly, unsettling answer as to why so many kill without apparent remorse. It’s easy, and reassuring in a morbid way, to think that genocides of the like are just perpetrated by evil, conscience-less people; with Congo, however, we see that such bloodshed was done in the name of temporality -- that is, the conviction that what happens in the now is destined to remain buried in the past. Alcohol, ecstasy, marijuana; Congo tells us he’s tried it all, but nothing stops the nightmares. Like so many others, he bought into a massive lie, the belief that history -- especially his own -- could ultimately be forgotten.
At one point, Congo is seen on a farm, playing with his two grandchildren. He encounters a duck, who had been hobbled by one of the kids. Congo picks it up, and asks his children to apologize to the wounded creature. Tell it you’re sorry, and the only reason you hurt it was because you were scared, he asked them. Does that same reasoning explain why the mass killings of 1966 transpired in Indonesia?
“The Act of Killing” concludes without ever really giving us a full answer, nor a sense of closure. It simply ends, with a clearly distraught Congo ambling out of the building where he killed so many people, greeted by an indifferent night and a pastel, capitalistic negative utopia that he’s partially responsible for inviting. Did he kill for money? Did he kill for the opportunity to eat at McDonalds and buy a flat screen television? Did he kill because he was fearful for himself and his family? Did he kill because the movies he watched as a young man made it look cool? Did he kill because, at the core of his very being, there rests a cruel, irredeemable heart? Or did he kill, simply because he figured that, one day, it wouldn’t bother him anymore?
Very, very rarely does one in this day and age encounter a film that asks questions so adult, so nuanced and so intimidating. “The Act of Killing,” it should go without saying, is a disturbing film, but at the same time, it’s also one of the most intellectually stimulating and enlightening I’ve watched in years.
If you care about the future of cinema -- or for that matter, the future of humanity -- this is a film I implore you to see as soon as you get the chance.
Four Tofu Dogs out of Four.