Critics are encouraged not to speak in hyperbole, but to call Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" one of the most astonishing films ever made seems like less of an opinion than it does a statement of fact. Such a claim isn't even necessarily a testament to the quality of Oppenheimer's new documentary (which is a must-see) so much as it speaks to movie's unbelievable premise, the horrors it chronicles and the participation it coerced from the perpetrators. Executive produced by documentary legends Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, "The Act of Killing" introduces us to Anwar Congo and his friends, a gaggle of aging but curiously charismatic Indonesian men who just so happen to be some of the most prolific mass-murderers in recorded history. Small-time gangsters who were promoted to death squad captains during the Communist purge that disfigured Indonesia in 1965, these men oversaw the executions of more than 500,000 people, with Anwar Congo himself personally responsible for murdering more than 1,000 of those victims (his favorite method being to strangle them with wire).
And why, you may ask, are Anwar and his cronies allowed to walk the streets, still commanding fear from the locals? Because their side won. Because they're seen as heroes, and seem to believe their legend. Oppenheimer, privy to how proud these men were for their crimes against humanity, began to suspect that such vanity was merely a defense mechanism, as though these mass-murderers had glommed on to the triumphant narrative that sustained their nation and used it as a means of distancing themselves from their own conscience. As "The Act of Killing" begins, Oppenheimer invites Anwar and his buddies into a revelatory meta-construct, encouraging them to make a film of their exploits, mining the fun genre elements of the gangster movies they once loved to re-imagine their proudest (read: most heinous) moments. And, like the old saying goes, it's all fun and games until someone is forced to confront the fact that they were responsible for genocide.
An astonishing portrait of personal memory and cultural denial, "The Act of Killing" is one of the year's hardest films to watch, but perhaps the most incredible to see. Drafthouse Films has provided us with these exclusive stills from the movie, which reveal the film within the film, illustrating the process by which Anwar and co slipped into their former roles.
"The Act of Killing" will be in theaters on July 19.