Review: 'The Act of Killing'

The Indonesian word for "gangster" translates to "free man." Over the course of Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary "The Act of Killing," we're constantly reminded of this fact by Anwar Congo, a movie ticket scalper turned genocidal murderer. According to Congo and members of the country's government, gangsters are a fundamental cog in Indonesia's mechanics. They have been since 1965, when the military staged a coup against Indonesian leaders, took power of the nation, and tasked men like Congo to slaughter anyone with Communist ties. As Congo boasts in the film, during the year long purge that followed the coup, he singlehandedly killed over 1,000 people. Today, he's revered as a hero. "The Act of Killing" depicts the legend in all his glory.

Oppenheimer gains unlimited access to Congo because his craft appeals to the aging gangster. Congo loves American movies; When he was killing Communists, or suspected Communists, or Chinese citizens who failed to pay mob bribes and were slapped with the label "Communist," he would imagine himself as characters from his favorite movies. If he was going to choke a man to death, he would play a henchman from a noir picture. If it was going to be death by pistol, he might pretend to be a Clint Eastwood-type, cowboy hat and all. Congo's dream of turning his story into a movie opens the door for Oppenheimer. The mass murder becomes a collaborator rather than a subject, and the result is the most gut-wrenching "making of" documentary of all time.

Following Congo as he recruits his peers and produces his big screen debut, "The Act of Killing" blends staged scenes of violence with candid interviews that put the continued corruption of Indonesia under a microscope. The style fits snuggly between the sensibilities of Executive Producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Oppenheimer allows his camera to float around the characters with fluid motion, Congo's awareness giving the documentarian freedom to find a middle ground between staged talking heads and verite action. "The Act of Killing" wisely avoids stylistic flourishes and lets Congo do the talking. Early on, the gangster traces his steps back to the roof of a clothing store, where the torture and murdering took place. Congo describes the murdering, gleefully demonstrating how he would wrap a victims neck with wire and pull it taught to they keeled over. He explains that the particular process minimizes blood. These are the memories of prideful artist.

Congo doesn't show remorse for his killings, because they're not crimes. The people in power today believe the genocide of 500,000 "Communists" was justified and that gangsters do make the world round. This makes it easy for Congo to wrangle up the "original cast" for his Indonesian drama and for Oppenheimer to record interviews with unfiltered truth. Congo's protégée is an obese mobster with delusions of grandeur. Oppenheimer films him as he storms across his hometown, demanding money from business owners while trying to earn their votes in his campaign for Parliament. He never thinks to hide his actions because he's a member of Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organization that enacted the genocide in the '60s and continues to influence the government. When Oppenheimer meets the editor of the biggest paper in the country, who also happens to be the guy who uncovered and targeted Communists for Congo, it becomes clear that there could and will never be an opposing force to the Indonesian oppression.

Oppenheimer's staged scenes give "The Act of Killing" a pitch black sense of humor. There are dance numbers, shlocky bursts of violence, and recreations of the Pancasilla Youth larger-scale attacks that make even the bigwigs in charge raise an eyebrow. Every time Congo and his gang use movie magic to bring history back to life, they break down walls built to keep horrid memories out of sight. In one scene, Congo watches as one of his cohorts, playing a victim, is interrogated and beaten into submission. It's all movie magic, but the recreation leaves the man in tears and screaming for mercy. It's the Strausburg Method by way of physical torture. The participants try to remain steadfast when speaking to camera — one of Congo's partner-in-crimes keeps telling the filmmaker that he welcomes a trial for his "war crimes" because he's only did the right thing — but behind their determination, Oppenheimer captures immense guilt.

The making of Congo's movie works as a social experiment, forcing subjects to unknowingly confront the past. Oppenheimer matches the narrative with equally hypnotic cinematography and music. The movie's length is disputable — on one hand it's too long, often doubling back on points and locations that only echo, but the length earns a  full sense of  immersion. Oppenheimer wants to drown us in dread, wake us up to the fact that, yeah, this all actually happened, and continues to perpetuate itself as the result of being one of the great travesties of the 20th century where the bad guys won and remain in power. Even Congo is suffocating by the end. For a prolonged conclusion, he feels the just way we do. Hacking, choking, dry-heaving over the very idea of what happened in 1965, and what continues to happen today.

SCORE: 7.9 / 10

Movie & TV Awards 2018