Appellate Judge Tom Becker's penguin almost died, until he taught it the Act of Krilling.
A story of killers who win, and the society they build.
Marat/Sade for a new generation.
In Indonesia in the '60s, Anwar Congo and his associates were movie theater gangsters—small time crooks who sold black market movie theater tickets. When the government was overthrown, the gangsters were recruited as death squads, mainly targeting communists, though no one who criticized—or seemed to criticize—the new military-backed government was safe.
The death squads were brutal. Millions were murdered; children were not safe, killed themselves and/or forced to watch their families slaughtered and their homes burned. Anwar Congo personally murdered upwards of a thousand people—a wire around the neck was his preferred method, which he demonstrates early in the film.
Because the communists and other victims were made out to be evil interlopers and a danger to society, the death squads are revered in Indonesia to this day; Congo is something of a folk hero, appearing at one point on an Indonesian talk show to raucous applause as he recounts his stories of keeping Indonesia safe.
As it happens, the stories are lies—not the stories of the killings, but the reasons behind the killings. Many of the victims weren't even communists, just citizens who disagreed with the new military regime.
So, in The Act of Killing, the former death squad members, now folk heroes, are asked to dramatize their exploits. Since these men started out as gangsters hustling movie theater tickets, there's an odd and repellent circular feel to the proceedings. These men love the movies, name dropping actors like Al Pacino and John Wayne as reference points for their murderous actions; on the talk show, Congo playfully suggests he resembles Sidney Poitier (he decidedly does not).
And so, we have history re-told as a musical, or a western, or a gangster film, or a horror movie, with the death squad members playing different roles; Congo gets done up in a dark wig (covering his greyed hair) and make-up to resemble his younger self. He also plays victim at points. Just like a "real movie," there are dream sequences, production numbers, and heroic speeches.
It's a fascinating perversion of humanity. Congo and his cohorts are remarkably candid about their deeds, offering up graphic descriptions of torture and murder in a strikingly facile manner. Congo talks about coming from watching an Elvis movie, and singing and dancing while he tortured people to death; Congo and the other killers seem to not have any real stake in politics whatsoever, no sense of self-righteousness or that the ends justified the means. They were merely mercenary thugs who parlayed a revolution into a money-making scheme. The film also notes that there was virtually no intervention from the western nations; if anything, there was tacit approval, likely because the death squads were eradicating "communists."
The film re-creations are bizarre and shocking, particularly the ones that feature Herman Koto, an obese paramilitary leader who does drag in his "film" scenes. Done up in elaborate make-up, headdresses, and wigs, as well as flowing, brightly colored gowns, Koto's female character turns up as villain, vamp, and a seemingly supernatural creature. If we did not know this man's history, it would be easy to see him as a comic relief actor, much like Italy's Bombolo.
Koto and Congo spend time watching the rushes and discussing their hopes for the finished film, taking it all very seriously, but frankly, it's difficult to imagine this mélànge of scenes and styles being cut together to make a cohesive, narrative.
The Act of Killing is fascinating, troubling, and infuriating on so many levels. On the one hand, it seems that these men are out to redeem themselves for actions that have no redemption—one paramilitary leader takes us on a tour of his opulent home, showing off delicate, one-of-a-kind glassware he's picked up on his world travels, offering himself as a genteel sophisticate. But then, we realize that these men really aren't seeking redemption, they're buying into their legend-status as heroes, even if they never set out to be. They make no apologies and few excuses for the atrocities they committed; on the contrary, they have bragging rights to the horrors.
Long before midpoint, it becomes awfully overwhelming—the reprehensible men cheerfully describing their inhumanity; the re-creations of the atrocities; the absolute soullessness of Congo and company; and the overblown, histrionic film-within-a film, which frankly looks more Bollywood—or even Dollywood—than Hollywood. At times, it comes perilously close to being less like watching a movie and more like experiencing a Black Box-style sensory overload.
The film was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an Indonesian filmmaker who has chosen to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal (a number of crew members also retained their anonymity for the same reason); Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) served as executive producers.
The two-Blu disc set includes the 166-minute director's cut as well as the 122-minute theatrical version. I watched the director's cut; generally, when given the option, that seems the way to go. I'm not so sure in this case. "Overwhelming" is again the word that comes to mind; I'm not sure what was removed for the theatrical release, but it's not hard to imagine losing 20 or so minutes from what I watched and still having a compelling, disturbing film.
Image quality is fine for this 1.78:1/1080p transfer, considering it's almost all interviews, archival footage, and scenes from the faux-movie, and cinematography wasn't the main focus. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is strong, with virtually all dialogue in Indonesian with non-removable subtitles.
The Act of Killing (Blu-ray) sports an impressive slate of supplements. Disc One, which contains the shorter theatrical version, includes an interview with Oppenheimer on Democracy Now; interviews with Herzog and Morris for Vice Presents; and deleted scenes, plus trailers for this film and other Drafthouse releases. The second disc, which contains the extended director's cut, also includes a commentary with Oppenheimer and Herzog. There is also a 64-page booklet with an essay by Morris, along with a code for a digital download. This is an excellent set of supplements, each one insightful and meaningful, adding to the viewing experiences as supplements should.
A point that's made by a number of people here is that the word gangster comes from English; it means "Free Men." It's an interesting thought: on the one hand, it illuminates the cluelessness of the people depicted here, thugs who consider themselves heroes; on the other, it offers some kind of hope, as we might be reaching a time, historically, when the real "Free Men" are able to puncture the delusions of a bunch of exalted murderers.
The Act of Killing is an important documentary, but an oppressive one. It's hard to watch, but impossible to ignore.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Drafthouse Films
• Director's Cut
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