Is it possible that some people have the ability to rationalize anything? You may find yourself wondering about that as you watch The Act of Killing, an extraordinary and deeply disturbing documentary about men who committed mass murder.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer focuses on Indonesian massacres that took place in 1965 and 1966. Under the guise of providing a service to the state, street thugs slaughtered anyone they decided belonged to the Communist Party. Precise numbers are difficult to come by, but at least 500,000 people were murdered, and some have set the total as high as three million.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Whether the victims of these killings actually were Communists seemed to matter little to those who brutally slaughtered them, not that membership in the Communist Party should have been sufficient reason to be killed.
Oppenheimer’s film, which includes reenactments of the killings by some of the men who did the dirty work, has an eerie and unsettling quality, in part because of the extent of the violence and in part because of the attitude of those who did the killing.
The killers reunite with a sense of bonhomie that puts you in mind of college alumni recalling past pranks. That’s one hell of an attitude for men who made murder commonplace.
To make matters even stranger, these men are forthcoming about what they did. Some participate in the Pancasila Youth, a staunch group of paramilitary zealots who gather for self-congratulatory rallies and what appear to be alarming expressions of chauvinism.
Oppenheimer hasn’t made what you’d call a “traditional” documentary. The centerpiece of his movie involves staged re-enactments of murders by those who committed them. You’ll see no archival footage from the ‘60s; instead, you’ll meet Anwar, a gangster who brutalized ethnic Chinese, as well as purported Communists.
Like others in the film, Anwar willingly discusses past deeds. He also approaches moviemaking with enthusiasm, as well as with a sense that the film should be entertaining. At one point, the men even come up with the idea of a musical number staged in front of a waterfall. They sometimes wear make-up to simulate the effect of beatings? (See photo above.)
Yes, everything in the film feels bizarre. But how else should a film such as this feel?
At one point, Anwar — a grandfather with a taste for sharp gangster dress — talks about how he learned to kill effectively, opting for strangulation with a wire rather than beatings. He’s happy to demonstrate (in simulation, of course) what he seems to regard as an innovative discovery.
The re-enactments are convincing and horrifying, small spectacles of unspeakable cruelty.
Perhaps because of cultural peculiarities, not everything in The Act of Killing is easily understood — why one of the men frequently dresses in drag, for example.
Several of the men tell us that the word “gangster” means “free man.” I don’t know how any of them arrived at such a meaning, but for these men, freedom seems to involve taking life and experiencing no consequences.
Anwar becomes a bit reflective at the end of the film, but, for the most part, Oppenheimer’s approach allows these men to emerge in full and frightening detail. Movie reviews don’t usually come with psychic weather reports, but in this case one may be necessary: Expect to be haunted by bad dreams.