Movie Review: The Act of Killing- An Unprecedented Artistic Exploration into the Depths of Legalized Cruelty, Perpetual Lawlessness, and a Moral Apocalypse

act of killingEver so often there comes a film that embraces the full potential of the art form as an exploratory medium that it has an undeniable importance to its existence because it takes extremely brave and risky creative decisions meant to expose the darkest stains on the human psyche and that film in 2013 is Joshua Oppenheimer’s debut feature The Act of Killing. Never has a film, or a documentary, been so disturbingly contemplative, so authentically haunting, and so grandiosely ambitious since Claude Lanzmann’s epic work of art Shoah both of which attempt to showcase the dark side of human nature by honestly depicting mankind’s apathetic butchery and its hateful collective mindset. The Act of Killing bizarrely follows some heralded members of the death squads in Medan, Indonesia from the 1965 military coup of the government and their unflappably frank confessions, depictions, and recreations of their savage work. Where the film begins to transcend the normal labels of film, documentary, and art into a work of pure significance is through Oppenheimer’s unprecedented creative choice to step back and give his subjects free rein to reveal their society’s own demented acceptance of death, extermination, and propaganda through surreal cinematic recreations ranging from two choreographed musical segments, a gangster noir interrogation, and even an exceptionally odd western segment. These renowned killers have suffered no consequence and are unapologetically open about their savage acts of cruelty making The Act of Killing an exceptionally difficult film to sit through because of its highly disturbing and disorienting plunge into an actual hell on earth but in doing so it’s a film that is purposefully enlightening. The film sagaciously attempts to contemplate the relationship between movies and violence, whether one influences or heightens the imagination of the other, and gracefully invites the audience and some of the film’s subjects into an actual morality play with genuine realizations and soul searching conclusions. Joshua Oppenheimer has not only created an astonishing and equally disturbing social documentary on indoctrination and the acceptance of evil but he’s allowed the limitlessness of the film art form to allow his film to become one of the most significant reflective cinematic experiences to ever grace the screen making The Act of Killing a timeless capsule of human butchery that simply must be seen to be believed.

In 1965 Indonesia there was a military coup of the government and it basically created an Orwellian reality where the term gangsters is understood as “free-men,” that legal bullies propped up by the military were deemed more equal than others, and terms such as democracy, freedom, and civil rights have an entirely different construct than what most civilized nations would consider appropriate. This is the backdrop of modern Indonesia, a majority Muslim nation where the military establishment rules and the men who proudly exterminated the “communists” during the coup are widely known, celebrated, and undeniably feared. One of these men is the focal point of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary named Anwar Congo who through his unabashedly sincere confessions on enhanced execution techniques and enthusiastic offerings to recreate them makes for one of the scariest on screen personas you’ll ever experience. He and his centerpiece partner in crime Adi Zulkadry, who eerily decrees that war crimes are defined by the winners, carry themselves with a banality that is reminiscent in most totalitarian nations from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, to the apathetic execution process of Fidel Castro and Che Gueverra, the cruelty enacted by Franco in Spain, and even in the organized starvation and executions widely known in Communist ruled China and the Soviet Union. Though these men and continuous generations behind them are being brainwashed by the idea that they are agents of freedom and they must crush the communist enemy it becomes the true definition of irony that they have actually become the very thing they resented just with a different slant in their propaganda message. The Act of Killing is expressing far more than previous acts of violence from a country that undoubtedly deems it as not only acceptable but also essential because it’s launching us into a society that has no sense of impunity and has put itself on a perpetual path of lawlessness where legalized mob activity, such as bribery for votes or bribery for protection, is the only guaranteed normality in the country’s governance. While political terms get thrown around this isn’t a film about politics or the differences between ideologies because ideology is never on a comparatively straight line but instead it’s a horseshoe shape where the further to the extremes you drift the closer to the other side you eventually become.

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Depicting these sorts of large concepts is an arduous task but it seems to be gracefully handled by Joshua Oppenheimer and his team of filmmakers, a good amount of them left anonymous in the credits. Granting his subjects from Anwar Congo to the repulsively large and proud Herman Koto the freedom to create their past atrocities in cinematic form is one of the most surreal, horrifying, and informative features that a documentary has ever utilized in its favor. While these renowned butchers emphatically claim that the movies inspired them to be gangsters, savages, and killers it’s interesting to note that these sorts of activities precede cinematic violence, such as the genocide that occurred under the Ottoman Empire of the Armenians. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bridged relationship between the cinema and violence but it’s dependent on how it’s portrayed, either apathetically or appropriately aimed at demonstrating its effects either on people, society, or the psyche. Here Oppenheimer is brilliantly getting his subjects to unwittingly reveal that they are the outcome of a society that allows systematic killing and legal acts of butchery seeking commendable excuses in any form, which the cinema happens to be their main delusional justification. The process of seeing these men construct their reimagining of horrible acts, which they even admit in absolute facileness that they are cruel, gives us an uncontaminated journey into damaged psyches of indoctrinated belief, desensitized action, and a brutal reality that no civilized society should adhere. Whether it’s the surreal musical segment featuring a man thanking Anwar Congo for executing him and sending him to heaven or a 1940s noir gangster scene where a violent interrogation ends with their inventive and less bloody style of execution using a garrote (strangulation with piano wire) all of them reveal the uncomfortable, disorienting, and disturbing reality that exists in this damaged, uncivilized, and cruel nation. These aren’t exercises meant for the subjects pure satisfaction, though some are too far gone to view it as anything else, because eventually our main subject Anwar Congo is put in the interrogation chair and his utterly confused reaction brings the entire film to a resounding thematic conclusion leaving him repulsed and haunted by the very actions he took on other people.

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Entertaining is a word that can never be used to describe the documentary The Act of Killing because it’s a careful and artistic exploration into the dark side of human nature where hate, death, and cruelty are all accepted forms of governed implementation. Oppenheimer has subtly prodded his subject’s conscience and even if no consequence or justice will ever come to Anwar Congo’s door that moment of horrifying clarity is a moment for us all, an important reminder that savagery and apathetic cruelness can enter our social constructs at any moment. This social documentary creates a vivid tapestry of bizarre shock, rising disgust, emotional enragement, and culturally devastation that is all contained inside the experience of the audience who are being tested by Oppenheimer’s refusal to counteract these banal monsters. The Act of Killing is a significant work of the cinematic art where it’s a plunge into a moral apocalypse, or a society where the most basic sense of humanity has been transfigured beyond any known reflection, leaving behind an astonishingly repulsive yet brilliant exercise in revealing a portrait of viciousness and the lasting effects it has on a society that enacts them. This isn’t a film meant to simply enlighten you on the atrocities that have taken place but actually seeks to mind-bendingly place you inside the perturbing mindset of men who have lost their sense of what it means to be human. This is a completely original artistic work that will unsettle your very being and that’s because the very actions revealed, confessed, and reenacted from the very people who exercised them will leave you confused and repulsed begging for a deep soul cleansing. This is a highly recommended cinematic experience because it’s simply important to uncover this hidden genocide, this blight on the human moral existence, and this example of perpetual lawlessness because of a lack of impunity that is gracefully and artistically depicted through an unprecedented exploration of the documentary medium.

Grade: A

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