I don't talk during movies. Hell, I'm writing for an Alamo Drafthouse outlet, so I think that's something of a prerequisite. Nevertheless at the 90 minute mark of this two hour movie I was incapable of stopping myself. At full voice I simply burst: "What the fuck?!?" I mention this mostly because the expensively dressed, and no doubt well behaved Englishman sitting to my left, fired back at full voice, "This is one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen in my life."
The Act of Killing is a journalistic/artistic curiosity that is so bizarre it sounds like a throwaway gag from a postmodern novel. Hold on to something while I try to explain.
In 1965 Indonesia had a military coup. During the following year about one million people (at least) were killed at the behest of the government. The mass killings were carried out by a paramilitary outfit called the Pancasila Youth, but with such a high number of murders required some outsourcing was in order. Local gangsters and thugs were tapped to aid in rounding people up and ending their lives.
Here's the first shock. The government of Indonesia (a major US trade partner, by the way) has never shifted. As such, the leaders of these death squads have never been called to justice. Heck, forget that, there's yet to be a time when they've been called anything but patriots and heroes. Many are living happy, comfortable lives in neighborhoods shared with the descendants of people they hunted down and killed with their bare hands.
American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer and a Danish production team met with a local, grandfatherly man named Anwar Congo. He unrepentantly claims to have killed one thousand men. And I don't mean he ordered that many dead, or even mowed them down blindly with machine guns. He did his business with as much intentional sadism as possible. He sawed off heads, he strangled people with wire.
Prior to his career as a killer he and his group were known as the Movie Theater Gangsters because they ran black market American films. They were huge cinema fans and, indeed, they let the movies nurture them when they came up with methods to kill people.
Oppenheimer and his crew engage in a dialogue with Congo and his surviving friends and eventually settle on an idea. Rather than just discuss the past, they are going to recreate some of the particularly bloody scenes. Let's make a movie! What follows is a cinematic trip into the heart of darkness unlike any that's ever been made.
Everyone is thrilled. They can't wait to share their past exploits. It's gonna be better than movies about Nazis, they say, because the Nazis never cut off peoples' heads. Plus, the Nazis were in the army, and they were gangsters, and gangsters are the only truly free men.
Congo has a portly, jolly buddy who directs children in the proper way to scream in terror as their house is being burned down. The correct way to cut into a carotid artery with coiled metal is detailed. The men dress as '40s gangsters and, very quickly, it becomes impossible to tell when they are "in character" playing within the scene or when they are talking to one another for real.
The film-within-the-film and reality begin to blur, making surreal juxtapositions as people mill about on set for the big musical number (to be a murdering gangster is to "be free") and the dream sequences (in time, Congo admits that he does have nightmares.)
I watched most of the film in stone cold shock. These men kiss their grandkids, go to the mall and, by and large, refuse to acknowledge any moral transgressions. Some explain away the malleability of international law (and they have a point there) and compare their actions to other events in war. The current leader of the paramilitary group gives textbook fascist speeches in a public park (with McDonalds' signs nearby) and makes rank sexist jokes in private. When news of the film reaches the public the group goes on a chat show that is so shocking, blunt and anti-human it feels like a far-fetched scene from a dystopian future movie.
The phrase "the banality of evil" has never been more applicable than in The Act of Killing. The former paramilitaries and gangsters yammer on and on about how they'd go about their business of ending life. There's a rambling discussion about the difference between sadism and cruelty, and which best describes them. To add to the insanity is that many of these scenes occur when the men are "in costume." Sometimes with special effects makeup so their face looks chewed up, sometimes in absurd pink cowboy hats and, yes, sometimes in drag.
In time, our main interview subject Congo slowly reveals some of the second thoughts he's had over the years. By the end, when he's watching a scene wherein he plays one of the victims, he says he now understands what the guy on the other side of the table felt. Here's where Oppenheimer has the sack to stand up and say "bullshit."
The two hour running time is deliberate and uncomfortable. In addition to my described outburst I found my stomach getting tied up in knots. The movie then ended with a revelatory sequence that, I feel, is important to spoil. Congo leads the crew to dingy handbag store. In the back is a staircase leading to a roof with high walls. Here, he explains, is where he'd do the killings.
He looks at the ground, picks up some metal wire and starts to wretch. His whole body convulses in dry heaves in cinema's most cathartic act of vomiting I've ever seen. It continues for quite some time and, in a metaphor too perfect for words, nothing actually comes out of his mouth. Congo is gagging, but he is too empty inside to actually throw up. He wants to rid himself of the poison inside but it is too late. He just hunches over making horrible, nauseating noises.
The Act of Killing, which boasts both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog as post-facto executive producers, is a minor miracle. Entertainment-wise the middle section is perhaps a bit long and a bit repetitive, but this is a movie that may ultimately do some good. What the world doesn't need right now is another finger-pointing 60 Minutes-style documentary. I'll be frank - if I read in the Toronto International Film Festival guidebook "Theater 3, 11 am, documentary about Indonesian Death Squads," I would have thought, "ah, that sounds worthy and important" but never would have walked in. The gimmick (no other word for it) of having these men confront their pasts through the movies that influenced them is just too bizarre not to witness. With luck the film will get enough attention that the Indonesian government will have to witness, too.