I have rarely experienced a film at once so very good and so despairing. Each sequence of The Act of Killing struck me as vital, incisive, edited so as to contribute to the film’s immense cumulative power. And in the case of nearly every sequence, I couldn’t wait for it to end. That’s not a backhanded compliment. Texas-born, UK-based Joshua Oppenheimer’s wildly idiosyncratic documentary about the massacre of as many as 2.5 million supposed Indonesian communists in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of President Sukarno is innovative, challenging and perversely brilliant. It yields a flood of insights into the proliferation of evil in a permissive environment—among its executive producers are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. It is often very funny in a horrendous sort of way. It’s one of the best films you’ll see this year, easily. It’s simply hard to take if you try to maintain any faith in human goodness. It is a sustained gaze into the abyss.
The operating premise is a stroke of genius. Oppenheimer located some men, self-described gangsters, who were key players in the mass murders. Learning of how they remain proud of their actions, how they have remained revered public figures in Indonesia and even held public office, and—this is essential—how they love the movies, Oppenheimer offered to facilitate their writing, directing and acting in reenactments of their ostensible glory days. The Act of Killing, thankfully, is not the mere fruit of their amateur labours; rather, it’s best summed up as Oppenheimer’s “making of.” It surveys the process of casting and re-staging atrocities, and the very gradual effect that this process has on one man in particular: Anwar Congo, who can seem like a gentle paternal figure one moment—he invites his grandsons to come watch him play one of his own victims, despite the fact that his role in the scene has clearly, perhaps irreversibly, traumatized him—and the next brag about how he was so much more sadistic than the Nazis. He’s not exaggerating.
There are in The Act of Killing clips from a TV talk show in which the cheerful host interviews Congo and others about their movie project, and, while perfectly real, it is astoundingly close to Oliver Stone levels of satire. There’s a scene in which a man recruited to play a torture victim relays a personal memory of his stepfather’s abduction and slaughter; he smiles all the while and is careful to iterate that he’s no communist. When they shoot his scene his performance feels unbearably real. There’s a scene in which members of the still powerful Pancasila Youth paramilitary group help to reenact the total destruction of a village, and one of the Pancasila members flatly declares how content he is to rape anything that moves—especially if it’s under 14. But the most important sequence is saved for the close of The Act of Killing, when Congo, having reached the end of his cinematic stroll down memory lane, returns to a balcony where he murdered countless victims. His hair has turned white, and as he shuffles around the space he is twice overcome with the overwhelming need to vomit. He doubles over and makes the most horrific noises, but he just can’t seem to let the vomit come. Probably because he’s afraid that, if he does, it might never stop.