In Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," a pair of gangsters — responsible for murdering an untold number of suspected communists in the years following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government — get the chance to recount their experiences. At first showing no visible remorse, the men boast of their achievements, and Oppenheimer capitalizes on their enthusiasm with a twisted gimmick: The men are given numerous opportunities to reenact the murders for Oppenheimer's camera, sometimes emphasizing their brutality and occasionally delivering surreal, flamboyant takes that offer a grotesque spin on classic Hollywood musicals. Playing make believe with murderers, Oppenheimer risks the possibility of empowering them. However, by humanizing psychopathic behavior, "The Act of Killing" is unparalleled in its unsettling perspective on the dementias associated with dictatorial extremes.
Oppenheimer's main focus is a lean man named Anwar Congo, one of several former members of the Indonesian paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth. Drawing from American movie clichés for his image as a menacing bad guy, Congo and one of his colleagues indulge Oppenheimer with stories of their murderous achievements while also complaining about the perception they face from the rest of the world. "We have too much democracy," one of them says. Frequently, the men refer to their power of gangsters as "free men," but Oppenheimer gradually reveals that no matter how much they justify their past, they remain trapped by the lingering feelings of discomfort that their horrific deeds have planted in their heads.
Oppenheimer doesn't valorize Congo and his cohorts, but he does empower them, a decision that firmly places in "The Act of Killing" in a moral grey zone for much of its runtime. Killers dress up in drag and act in demented filmed sketches that include mock decapitations and other freakish acts while their friends cheer them on. They embrace the idea of coming across as cruel for the domineering presence it allows them.
But Oppenheimer's agenda slowly reveals itself. Even as Congo brags of his antics, he sports a bizarre form of naivete in which he fails to comprehend why his acts haunt him. By allowing Congo to struggle through this conundrum rather than setting him straight, Oppenheimer provides a close up of a mania that's too often relegated to imagination. Struggling to comprehend an objectively evil mentality, "The Act of Killing" explores the paradox of seemingly normal people content with their crimes. In one telling scene, the reenactment of a strangling is interrupted when the gangsters realize it's time for evening prayers.
At 115 minutes, "The Act of Killing" is a frequently devastating experience that smothers viewers with a one-sided point of view given the power to run wild. A large-scale reenactment of mass murder, replete with crying children and homes ablaze, seems real enough to make it evident that the gangsters would feel comfortable committing the same murders all over again. Elsewhere, the killers craft a freakish music video for "Born Free" that finds an actor in the role of the victim and thanking the men for "sending me to heaven."
These darkly comic displays allow Congo to finally question the nature of his acts in the abstract. Just what is he celebrating? Instead of arguing with Congo, Oppenheimer lets the man get the crazy out of his system in order to confront harsh truths in the closing minutes. The filmmaker only occasionally speaks up from behind the camera to remind his subject that, no matter how unsettled their crimes have left them, the experience was infinitely worse for their victims.
"The Act of Killing" has been shepherded along by executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, an apt pair for this quintessential look at murder as a primal phenomenon. While Oppenheimer achieves an unprecedented closeness with people responsible for death, his mission is not unlike the process behind Herzog's "Death Row" series (where the director interviews convicted murderers) and Morris' "Mr. Death," which centers on a retired executioner. More than anything else, however, Oppenheimer's process calls to mind Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust epic "Shoah," as both Lanzmann and Oppenheimer eschew archival footage in favor of letting their subjects actualize past misdeeds in the present. The reenactments provide a chilling closeness that no grainy footage could possibly convey.
The case can be made that Oppenheimer lets Congo and the other participants off too easy. They never receive a direct comeuppance. However, "The Act of Killing" vilifies these men by implication. It's possible they might not mind the way they come off for the camera, as they're all to eager to explain themselves; it's that very eagerness, however, that confirms their guilt.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A buzz movie at Telluride, "The Act of Killing" has generally received positive reviews but has also left many people feeling uneasy. It's bound to continue that pattern when it arrives at Toronto next week. A midsize distributor could generate a fair amount of interest for the film in limited release, but its longterm commercial prospects are fairly dicey given the challenging subject matter.