Film Reviews

The Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer

Rating - 9/10

The Act of Killing, an offbeat and experimental narrative approach to the documentary, is preceded by a special message from director Joshua Oppenheimer about good versus evil's exclusive existence in the movies and the manner in which culture influences cinema and vice versa (a variation on the reciprocal 'art' and 'life').  Whenever these subjects are debated, there is inevitably a panel on the context of violence; in the case of The Act of Killing, violent acts and cinema are bedfellows, more closely related than even the staunchest advocates of censorship would assert.  The film transcends traditional data-collecting and studies to provide strong first-hand evidence that not only has media incited and inspired real life violence, but it has also allowed killers to distance themselves from the act by thinking of the violence as role-playing dramatization.  Oppenheimer furthers this cycle by allowing his subjects to recreate crime scenes in precisely the medium in which they were first exposed: film.  Therein lies the brilliance of the title, as "the act of killing" refers both to literal action of the slaughter and the "acting," recreating cinematic versions of actual events, by which the filmmakers (including many anonymous names) hope to bring Indonesian hitmen to perceive the repercussions of their actions.  For the past several decades, the country has publicly celebrated politically affiliated ruthlessness under a paramilitary oligarchy.

Further expository details reveal the magnitude of the plight: in 1965, Sukarno's Indonesian government was overthrown by the military; those who opposed the emergent regime led by Suharto were condemned as communists and annihilated by hired death squads.  Over forty-five years later, those who were killers-for-hire are still continually celebrated through public demonstrations by a large portion of the country.  Oppenheimer and company afford these murderers the opportunity to craft increasingly elaborate scenes of their own executions that range from brutal realism to surreal pageantry; appealing to their fondness for the glorifying violence of American cinema, the producers know the prospect will appeal to the executioners, but filmmakers' ulterior motive is to instigate a pathway to epiphany.  For The Act of Killing's duration, Oppenheimer remains a presence in the film by occasionally speaking to interviewees from behind the camera, but he often conscientiously gears the content to compound the true weight and psychological effects of past violence, ensuring his film will be a personal artistic statement rather than a contribution to indoctrinating propaganda.

The scenario centers on two thugs, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, who initially navigate the bustling streets attempting to recruit people for this makeshift performance where civilians pretend to be prisoners pleading with their captors (formerly themselves).  They then move to the literal scenes of their crimes, and Congo reflects on how he devised the most cleanly method of beheading by wrapping steel wires around the necks of suspected communists.  Prior to their promotion by the Suharto regime, the two used to scalp tickets to imported American films, as they explain, boasting that the "highs" of the experience allowed them to disconnect from the proceeding acts of murder.  Here, Congo claims his methods of killing were influenced by films of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and John Wayne.  The Act of Killing provocatively positions this scene towards the beginning of the film as a prime example of how Hollywood glamorization had permeated regions of the world with its sense of corruptive hypermasculine authority even in the mid-1960s.  Of course, American films aren't entirely the culprit, but coupled with a hysteric nationalism and a need to blame a societal group, one begins to imagine the proportions of the Holocaust.

The anthem of these men and the extremist Pancasila Youth paramilitary group (whose members exceed three million in Indonesia) concerns the association of the word "gangster" with "free man."  It's a mantra that has transformed from an immoral intimidation to absolute freedom from moral responsibility.  As it may be commonly viewed as noble to devote one's life to public service, members of Pancasila, stuck in a perpetual delusion, make a similar case for pursuing the world of extortion and murder.  The living examples are steadfast reinforcement; another executioner named Sunardi later appears to further adhere to this cultural confusion between reality and filmed fantasy by comparing actual violent acts to those in Nazi movies.  He once desired "something even more sadistic" than one would witness in them.  Oppenheimer abbreviates the man's speech in relation to the others, but the commentary again demonstrates the killer's need for ultimate power.  If Sunardi's goal was to pit reality with fantasy for supreme savagery, he completely obliterated the distinctions between them and detached himself from conscience in the broadest sense.  The effect of cinema has been so potent that there is no discernible difference between celluloid and reality, which scarily pertains to Oppenheimer's introductory message on the questions of cinema as culture and life imitating art.

Threaded through the film are recurring dreamlike segments that materialize in a grandiose penultimate sequence; glowing with costumed dancers beneath a scenic waterfall, it's a music video for a propagandistic song called "Born Free" (that would seem to reference the killers' concepts of gangsters).  A deceased man, a "commie," is seen thanking Anwar Congo for sending him to Heaven.  The camera cuts to Congo watching the video at home with an impressed grin.  He obsesses over the aesthetics by stating, "The waterfall expresses such deep feelings."  Earlier, when similarly presented with his own retelling of the wire executions, Congo examines the "look" of the scene as he would a film, not the moral implications of behavior.  At first glance he mentions that he should dye his hair black.  In a scene several minutes later, he vaingloriously examines his teeth in the rear-view mirror of a car.  However, as the film reaches its final third, Congo turns away from his self-deceptions, and it begins with the revelation that he believes his nightmares are haunted by ghosts of his victims.  Oppenheimer's method of pronouncing guilt becomes apparent, leading to the gripping and harrowing conclusion that Congo has caused a rippling of pain through generations, as he has continued to live without punishment or thought of atonement.  The Act of Killing is an unbelievably complex and challenging film that concerns humanistic versus depraved perceptions in the postmodern world; as opposed to good versus evil, this is the eternal struggle Oppenheimer seeks, in a world where all people may have the chance to live and understand one another.