Throughout every genre since the beginning of filmmaking, the act of murder has been represented in limitless variations, with an enormous array of assailants, repercussions and emotional consequence tagged onto each depiction. Whether the act is carried out in the horror genre by a remorseless masked killer or sadistic sexual deviant, or in the world of drama where William Munny and Michael Corleone look back on their multitude of violent transgressions with shame and guilt, murder has become an essential storytelling tool for dozens of movies of any given year. But in the world of documentary, audiences rarely get to see killers who don’t have the basic emotional capacity to look back on their actions with sorrow; in fact, the closest audiences have seen these characters would be in fictional documentaries like Man Bites Dog. But The Act of Killing, now in theaters and on VOD from Drafthouse Films, changes that, telling the story of Indonesian Gangsters who, in 1965, led government-approved communist killing squads and took the lives of over 1,000,000 people, and not only do they not bat a wink, but they embrace their roles.
Returning home from these atrocities and being celebrated as war heroes, these gangsters have been approached by a documentary crew to re-enact their crimes through whatever medium they would like; therefore, retellings of said acts as a musical, western and gangster film. What ensues is one of the most eye-opening, shocking and affecting documentaries ever made, offering a real-life look at these killers at their most timid. As the film progresses, you learn about these gangsters and what shapes their imagination, between their influences from films as a kid, their identity in the grander scheme of Indonesian Politics and their casual attitude towards their methods of killing. The film, hoisting a pitch black sense of humor, only alleviates from time-to-time, inspiring fright and awe when not showing just how human and bizarre these men can be. In this way, The Act of Killing is virtually hypnotic, and you follow in full engagement, riding along with every smiling remembrance of sadism and surreal set piece.
Those who are more inclined to traditional documentaries will definitely be jarred, as the fictional recreations and the presented narrative structure is definitely more in line with neo-surrealism, and the actual subject itself tends to be rough waters for those without a strong emotional footing or hardened curiosity with history. But as documentary looking in on what cannot be changed or forgiven, The Act of Killing is one of a kind, and a masterpiece at that. The mere fact that you can watch this film and end up laughing alongside these men who spent years killing men, raping women and burning down entire villages is one that causes you to look within yourself and the choices, albeit less extreme, that you have made. The documentary may be accused of making light of the subjects of war crime and politically motivated massacres, but the humor comes not from the action, but from reaction, as these gangsters will look at footage of themselves re-enacting ways to kill prisoners and comment on what pants they would instead wear. It’s this blasé inconsequential viewpoint on acts that we consider to be damning that makes the film such an entrancing and harrowing watch.
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and produced by Signe Byrge Sorensen, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Joram ten Brink, and Andre Singer, The Act of Killing is an unforgettable documentary that evokes visceral responses of the emotional and psychological variety. It penetrates your conscience and dares you to relate to these clearly unstable but incredibly traditional and casual war criminals, and offers dazzling visuals and a genuinely consuming narrative that never lets up, even in times of the mundane. It’s possibly one of the most important documentaries I’ve ever seen, and believe that if you can take the mental and spiritual punishment within the film, you should seek it out and see it as you likely will never see anything like The Act of Killing again.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.