Murder will out
It's not unutterably perfect - and who the heck wants a completely perfect movie, anyway, they leave nothing to talk about - but even better, The Act of Killing is the most unique and essential movie I have seen in 2013. It is maybe the only thing I have seen this year about which I would say that it is genuinely important; and not for the reasons that it telegraphs, because it confronts directly and painfully a history of violence that has been largely hidden by a society with a strong stake in never confronting that history. It would still be, I suspect, the most bruising and intelligent movie of the year even if it took place in a made-up fantasyland; that it instead involves real human beings and real moral crimes that took place in Indonesia in 1965 and '66 is hardly incidental, but it's certianly not the be-all and end-all of the film's justification for itself, and that alone is enough to make it stand out among both fiction and non-fiction films that address themselves to such self-consciously serious content.
The proximate subject of the film is the purge of identified Communists following a failed coup in September of '65 (the actual subject, now that's the question), though "Communist" is a word that, we are told by the men who committed the purging, meant something closer to "undesirable person" than anything legitimately ideological and political. At least 500,000 people were killed before all was said and done, and half a century later, the members of the gangs who perpetrated these acts are revered as heroes by the Indonesian people.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer, co-director Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director who is one of a great many crew members whose fear about giving their right name in the film's ending credits speaks more eloquently than anything else in the film about the state of contemporary Indonesia and how active and alive the issues explored onscreen remain decades later, rounded up a number of men who were involved in the purges in their youth, and have parlayed this into political careers, positions of idolatry among the young members of the paramilitary gangs which remain vital even now, or simply keep the memory alive in the manner of old men throughout the world who believe themselves to have lived a life well-spent. In addition to giving these men a completely safe space to talk about their histories, Oppenheimer encouraged them to recreate their killings in the form of a movie, which could be made any way they wanted to. It's not entirely clear from The Act of Killing whether all of the short film scenes we see are meant to be part of a unified project, or just fragments of individual psychologies, but the one thing that is unabashedly clear regardless is that the old men creating them are severely broken people.
Preeminent among the many things I was not expecting of The Act of Killing: that far more than a document of a mass slaughter that has never been faced within or outside of Indonesia, it would be an investigation into how media consumption creates behavior and is in turn created by it. There's little wonder why Werner Herzog threw his name recognition behind the film as executive producer (above and beyond its surface-level resemblance to his Little Dieter Needs to Fly), for this is a film about how we engage with cinema, and the personal of creating an image. Certainly, just looking at The Act of Killing reveals it to be a film like nothing else: the movies created by the former killers are hallucinatory reductions of Hollywood genres (film noir, musical, war movie) into arrestingly distorted copies that feel like somebody remembered having a nightmare about classical Hollywood cinema, but cannot remember having seen any of the films in his waking life.
And one of the main things we learn about the killers, and especially about Anwar Congo, the film's most consistent subject, is that they loved watching movies. Multiple people pridefully describe how watching violent American movies game them new ideas for how to more effectively - or just more playfully - execute their victims; one man brusquely suggests that it's hypocrisy to speak ill of the death squads if you've ever watched a film about Nazis, since the only reason anyone ever would is to pornographically indulge in the power and sadism displayed therein (in a film absolutely rotten with revealing statements, this is by far the most revealing thing that anyone says). In particular, there was a clear fetishisation of gangster films, which Congo still speaks of in glowing, rapturous terms; the gangsters idealised the figures they say in those films as free men (and the word "preman", their preferred slang term for "gangster", was etymologically derived from the Dutch for "free man").
Having thus taken their behavioral cues from movies, it is through the movies that these men engage with their past, seemingly for the first time ever. It is stunning, mesmerising stuff. Without ever having to indulge in sad-faced moralising, Oppenheimer and his colleages have managed to make the most brutally effective takedown of the unexamined system of institutional violence of Indonesia past and present that I can imagine, simply by stepping just far enough back from their subjects that they end up seeming mentally fragile at best, totally divorced from reality at worst. Congo, at one point, slides effortlessly from remembering the time he saw an Elvis movie at a certain theater to recalling the building where he used to take people to kill them, one of the most abrupt of the film's many bitterly ironic reversals, all of which build up a clinically outraged depiction of the gangsters as men whose violent past has left them incapable of the most basic rational thought (and the wild, weird, off-putting, magnetic films they make do absolutely nothing to counteract that impression). It is a film that does all of its work by trusting in the viewer's own humanity, being troubled not just by the acts being discussed by troubled by how untroubled the onscreen subjects are, and letting us draw our own conclusions about how dangerous it is to let history go unexplored and unchallenged, not just for the potential victims of a repetition of that history, but for the perpetrators of it, who have clearly not come out fully intact.
This is great, complex filmmaking, presenting visions that are as totally original as anything I have seen this year in service of a shattering depiction of inhumanity. It leaves itself open to only two serious criticisms, as I see it: the one I am prepared to agree with is that it's redundant, and a 90-minute version of the film would probably not be meaningfully less profound than a two-hour version. The other is that the film does a shit job of contextualising the history involved; this is absolutely true, but I don't think it's an accident, nor a problem. Oppenheimer isn't telling a history lesson, he's presenting a scenario in which brutal acts poison individuals and societies that valorise them. If anything, by leaving the historical specifics, I think that the filmmakers leave their film significantly more universal in its reach: the Indonesian killings are the entry point, but the themes are not tied to any one place or time, and those themes are explored with unbelievable richness, sophistication, and horror, in the most clear-cut masterpiece I have seen in quite a long time.