The Act of Killing (15) – Review
The Act of Killing starts with a stark, shocking description of Indonesia’s New Order, which saw over a million alleged communists murdered by groups of military and politically sponsored gangsters.
And the ensuing 90 minutes of director Josh Oppenheimer's gripping, occasionally hallucinatory documentary is an attempt to project the reality of this abstracted horror. That Oppenheimer achieves this by getting a cast of murderers, torturers and rapists to re-enact their crimes for a proposed film ‘celebrating’ their purge is both The Act of Killing’s genius and the source of its shortcomings, such as they are…
A succession of triumphant militia-endorsed roadshows with fixed-grin choreographed dancers (carefully set against dirt poor townships) The Act of Killing’s Indonesia feels less like a country, more like the kind of alternate history dystopia that Robert Harris or Philip K Dick wrote feverish thrillers about. Indeed there’s a Dick-like flickering between reality and the increasingly phantasmagoric unreality of the film – and it's a dislocation that Oppenheimer’s key character Anwar Congo slowly appears to fall into over the course of Killing's story. Caught by his own vanity, mass murderer Congo complains of nightmares which he sees the film as a chance to banish, and the failure of his film to achieve this is one of The Act of Killing’s dazzling accomplishments.
That said, there’s a sense of diminishing returns to The Act of Killing’s repeated stories of torture and dumped bodies. Mindlessly murdering innocent men, woman and children for what they believe (or don’t believe – but neither Oppenheimer nor his subjects demonstrate much interest in the people who were killed) isn’t a role that attracts thinkers. Oppenheimer's scenes of Indonesia’s government approved, US-fixated gangsters showing off their bad taste in art or talking about how much they like Al Pacino’s Scarface are very much evidence of the banality of evil.
The influence of a specific thread of US culture is fascinating however. Several characters talk about their interest in US movies (Indonesia’s 1965 dictatorship was supported by the US during the height of cold war paranoia) and fears that communism would take rich cultural experiences like Viva Las Vegas or Rambo away from them. And despite one riveting moment of Mitchell and Webb-like ‘ We’re the baddies ’ clarity for one character, a kind of John Matrix -like blankness permates their descriptions of working out ways to kill their victims without leaving lots of blood and the like.
But that shocking appearance is an indicator as to blood's prescence as The Act of Killing’s strongest character. When it suddenly floods a story about doing away with a mountain of ‘suspects’ in one story you gasp. That's possibly because the films Oppenheimer’s documentary most resembles are Italian giallo horrors. An old Indonesian propaganda film full of bright red gore and gung-ho guns shown at one point feels like a pantomime Delta Force directed by Dario Argento. Oppenheimer's bloodiest – and most amazing – scene comes in an incredible off-camera sequence for The Act of Killing’s movie within a movie in which Congo plays a decapitated head which his companion Herman torments with blood and a liver he purports to be carved from his companion. It's a kind of repeating, self-replicating Beckettian hell that reveals both men's characters as the film accelerates towards a final stretch filled with models of Congo’s head designed by the art department that are destroyed over and over again in service of his film.
It's riveting, unremitting. You actually start to crave the comparatively natural colours of Indonesian malls that fascinate Oppenheimer. There’s a beautiful shot looking down the void between ascending and descending escalators in one shopping centre where blank-faced customers are reflected in the glass like ghosts and the only figure who seems real is a cleaner. The Act of Killing’s Indonesia remains, it seems, a country full of spirits. A horror filled past; a feared future that promises revenge from the children of the dead – and in between, the architects of today's Indonesia – gangsters barricading themselves in a fictional present that offers no answers and might just last forever…
Review by Rob Barker
The Act of Killing is at The Showroom now.