Movie Review: The Act of Killing

Dead fish!

To call the documentary The Act of Killing disturbing is an understatement. The film is the closest most of us may ever have to stare face to face with pure evil. Director Joshua Oppenheimer follows a group of Indonesian thugs who were once part of a military death squad during the 1960s. These men, in charge of torturing and killing suspected “communists”, are not the broken, cowardly messes one might find in fiction; instead, they regularly wine and dine within their extremely comfortable lives, taken from those murdered in the name of country. In an attempt at romanticizing these atrocities, we’re repeatedly told that the word “gangster” translates into “free man”. It would be upsetting enough if all this were done for some twisted nationalistic pride, but these gangsters brag about how much money they take from the locals, and how they can basically do whatever they want with impunity. It’s the fact that these men know they’re full of it and don’t even care that’s enraging–who is going to stop them?

The Act of Killing’s main focus is following Anwar Congo, the founder of the military group Pemuda Pancasila. His cohorts are tasked with recreating their memories of the slaughter in film, something they jump at gleefully. Oppenheimer claims that he spent half a decade with these people, and it shows in how Anwar speaks to the camera with ease. Each of the gangsters reminisces their time in the death squad; Anwar shows Oppenheimer’s crew exactly where they would kill people, the methods that they determined were most “humane”, and where they would dump the bodies. As it turns out Act of Killing may be the greatest ironic black comedy to date. While gangsters creating a film about actual murders they committed is fascinating stuff, it’s not what Oppenheimer is fully interested in. Instead, Oppenheimer wants to show us the psychology of mass murderers: How can you live with yourself once you’ve taken a life, or even a thousand lives? Many of these “gangsters” justify their acts for a number of a reasons. One friend claims that as long as he’s making money, he was in the right. The others, particularly Anwar, talk of the many American gangster films they would watch as kids, and how they would pose as these characters and see who can be the most sadistic. To them, it is all about being cool. It’s hard not to see these thugs as merely school children in adult clothing, acting out their greatest power fantasies with little regard for the people they hurt.

Ironically, it’s Anwar himself who acts as the closest thing to a moral pole a film like The Act of Killing could possibly have. Throughout, Anwar speaks of nightmares that plague him nightly, and he understands that they all come from the acts of violence he participated in. But the film hits the ground running when he’s forced to see the extent of his crimes, or at least theatrically-enhanced versions. Oppenheimer’s cameras hang on Anwar’s face as it dawns on him how awful his actions were. It’s here where the film may prove the most problematic to some. Anwar’s guilt fits into a rather neat narrative to hang on a documentary: The evil ne’er-do-well realizes, on some level, that what he did was wrong. A cynic could argue that Oppenheimer pushed and prodded Anwar to get the results he wanted or–and this is based on an article I read on the film–Anwar, so inspired by the gangsters he’s seen in the movies, has effectively conned Oppenheimer and the audience, creating his own redemption-filled third act.

But even if Anwar’s epiphany proved false, The Act of Killing is still scarily effective. A fascinating look at the mind of a killer, the film is extremely hard to watch; it is proof of the banality of evil that, sadly, exists in the world. While I place the film in my “I could only watch once” list, this is a movie people should be talking about.


Christopher Exantus is a young, dashing 23 year-old with hopes of making it big–or just enough to make some cash. Realizing that working at a dead-end job would be career suicide, Chris mercilessly banged his head upon his laptop computer and regularly pumps out personal reviews on film, pop-culture, and whatever else happens to catch his attention at the moment. Currently, his life goal is to become a fancy hipster living in a big, stupid hipsterish apartment in the city–and it will be awesome. He has a blog about film, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ceexantus.

Photo by Rajeev, via Flickr.

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