In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. To do their bidding afterward, the army went out and recruited what were known as “movie theater gangsters” — young men who sold movie tickets on the black market and occasionally engaged in more violent activities. These gangsters were turned into death squads, their methods of killing directly influenced by the American films they adored. One of those young men was Anwar Congo, who is said to have killed hundreds of people, often by strangling them with a wire. He later went on to become the founder of a right-wing paramilitary organization that continues to wield an immense — and dangerous — amount of power and influence. To make a documentary about the death squads, director Joshua Oppenheimer and his team mounted an unusual approach: They convinced Anwar and some of his associates to recreate their actions on a soundstage, in front of a camera. In other words, the gangsters would become filmmakers and actors themselves. The result of that approach is The Act of Killing.
The men write, direct, and star in the recreations, utilizing several familiar Hollywood genres, including, appropriately, the gangster film. Sets are built, special effects are created, rehearsals held. At one point, Anwar takes the documentary team to the location where he would routinely wrap a wire around a victim’s neck and pull as hard as he could. He then stages scenes just like it. Anwar’s mini-movies become increasingly violent and horrific. What’s most shocking is that we can sense a certain detachment; these guys, who killed so many, are determined to get things “right” on camera because they’re almost proud of what they did. (At one point, Anwar cheerfully shows the recreations to his very young grandchildren.) It’s who they were, and maybe still are. Occasionally, the doc ventures outside the studio to show how the influence of the death squads continues to be pervasive to this day, through the actions of Anwar’s paramilitary group.
Since its theatrical release, The Act of Killing has earned near-rapturous critical praise, in part because it shows these men recalling the finest details of their murders, which offers some insight into the mentality that allowed them to be carried out so callously. There is, nonetheless, a queasy feeling to the documentary that will turn off more than a few viewers. Although Oppenheimer and his co-directors clearly intend the exact opposite, having these men reenact their crimes in the style of various cinematic genres often trivializes what they did. Nowhere is that more evident than in the film’s signature musical sequence, in which elaborately-costumed murderers sing “Born Free” in front of a waterfall. A gigantic fish is also part of this scene, and one of the killers — an obese fellow — is comically put in drag. We are, in moments like this, watching brutal, immoral people engage in playtime, all of it sanctioned and funded by the filmmakers. Hearing the gruesome details of the murders and then seeing the perpetrators frolicking around like miniature Scorseses (or Ethel Mermans, for that matter) is unsettling in all the wrong ways. Yes, it shows that these men have compartmentalized their crimes, or perhaps even continue to cling to their mental justifications for them, but it feels wrong to let them turn their heinous actions into a game they are often visibly enjoying. More than half the names listed in the end credit scroll are “Anonymous,” which indicates that those who made The Act of Killing may even have had reservations about the film’s content.
There’s only one moment where The Act of Killing makes an undeniable impact, and it comes at the very end. Anwar is asked to play the victim in one recreation, and he has an intense emotional reaction to it. Oppenheimer rightly sticks the knife in with a poignant, well-timed observation. Still, this is what the director should have been doing all along. We get the idea early on that the gangsters viewed their actions almost cinematically, carrying them out with chilling, unrepentant ruthlessness. The film seems content to just keep hitting that beat again and again for most of its running time. Having more footage dealing with the psychological aftermath of the recreations — and allowing that aspect to dominate the back half of the movie — might have delivered the profound insight Oppenheimer and his co-directors were obviously shooting for. Instead, we get too many repetitive sections in which Anwar and company seem to be waxing nostalgic rather than exploring the implications of what they did.
The Act of Killing does offer some enlightenment about the subject of Indonesian death squads, but it’s not nearly in proportion to the vileness of the murders carried out by Anwar and his associates.
The Blu-ray contains both the 122-minute theatrical version and the 166-minute extended version of the film. Also included are deleted scenes, an interview with producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and an audio commentary.