An enormously troubling “documentary,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s bizarre and surreal The Act of Killing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And that’s always a good thing. But, with subject matter as sad and as disturbing as this, it’ll take a particular type of viewer to want to bear witness to it. This is one of those “I’m glad I saw it once but I’m really glad I never need to see it again” type deals. Strong medicine as they’d say. Focusing on the 1965-66 U.S.-assisted Indonesian genocide of up to 2.5 million “communists” at the hands of Suharto, the film is a boundary and medium pushing provocation designed to repel and fascinate in equal measure. Because the movie primarily consists of grotesque re-enactments of the various slaughters, re-enacted by the very death squad members and gangsters who carried out the killings, this tactic lends the project a distinct vibe that becomes something of a tutorial horror show.
The various murderers, still free to this day and some still holding strong political or military influence within the country, confess to their crimes directly to the camera, most of them proud of what they did, talking about how they were inspired by violent Hollywood movies, never fully reflecting on what it was that they actually were doing. That is, until the end, where one of the executioners, dressed and playing a tortured prisoner during one of the bits of staged madness, goes through what one might consider as a “mild crisis of conscience.” To put it lightly. It’s a sight that I’ll never forget, as I’ve never seen someone seemingly choke up their own rotten soul. Exec-produced by Werner Herzog (naturally) and Errol Morris, The Act of Killing is a film that stares at true evil directly in the face, and because nothing seems to be learned by these “human” monsters, the end result feels as hopeless as it does spellbinding.