There are reasons to value each best documentary nominee this year, but only one makes history. That honor doesn’t belong to “The Square,” Jehane Noujaim’s stirring account of Egypt’s tumultuous revolution, which certainly does a capable job of documenting history in action. It’s also not applicable to “Dirty Wars,” a competent account of journalist Jeremy Scahill’s underground work exposing U.S. efforts throughout the Middle East to cover up mismanaged espionage missions, assassinations, and other unflattering efforts, based on the reporter’s book of the same name. And while “Cutie and the Boxer” eloquently chronicles the romance between an eccentric painter and his devout partner, its appeal lies in its story’s intimacy rather than any larger thematic context.
But Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is more than just a movie that tackles consequential issues; it’s the cinematic equivalent of hitting the alarm while simultaneously being the alarm. It magnifies present-day evil by giving it room to breathe.
The director’s years-in-the-works portrait showcases former Indonesian gangsters responsible for murdering countless civilians during the country’s horrific anti-communist purge in the late sixties. Despite the context, however, it doesn’t provide a tidy overview of the events in question. Instead, Oppenheimer gives his demented subjects the luxury of telling their stories on their own terms — and, finding that they’re willing to boast about it, gives them the tools to construct their fantasies.
This approach doesn’t go down easy for anyone. Along with plentiful accolades, “The Act of Killing” has inspired a mixture of contempt and suspicion with regard to its moral implications. The questions write themselves: How could Oppenheimer, along with co-directors Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker, possibly justify this glorification of abject corruption?
Perhaps the only answer: By trusting their audience to get the message.
Just as fellow Oscar nominee Hayao Miyazaki has been criticized for celebrating a brilliant engineer whose work was used for warfare in “The Wind Rises,” Oppenheimer constantly faces accusations that he glamorizes the murderers in question. But the lack of accountability is precisely what makes “The Act of Killing” such a radical, transformative experience: No movie in recent memory comes this close to witnessing purely psychotic behavior in deeply personal terms.
Yet even if “The Act of Killing” were guilty of celebrating its subjects, it would still deserve singling out for its creative means of magnifying deplorable behavior. In that regard, it exists in a longstanding tradition. One could argue that Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” set the bar for the unsteady dichotomy between appreciating art and abhorring its content (although “Birth of a Nation” got the ball rolling). By isolating individual components of “The Act of Killing,” it would be easy to place it in this same problematic tradition: The filmmakers have the gall to stage flamboyant musical set piece and moody film noir reenactions of torture scenes by taking cues from boastful gangster Anwar Congo and his cohorts.
But these disturbing sequence reflect a canny intellectual gamble on the part of the directors, whose willingness to glamorize these evils form a shocking contrast with the events in question. As a result, “The Act of Killing” simultaneously exposes a genocidal event barely known by the rest of the world and represents the deluded subjectivity that allowed it to take place. It’s a story not only about the machine behind the killings but the gears that made it run, as well as the defense mechanisms that keep them churning in the present. There’s nothing else like it: a movie that turns its threat into real people while forcing you to sift through their guilt. Not even Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” approached the Nazis responsible for the destruction at its center without a hidden camera. In “The Act of Killing,” the villains hog the spotlight, and your only choices are to stare them down — or look away.
When I saw “The Act of Killing” at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, at the tail of a long, exhausting weekend, the last thing I wanted to do was sit through a two hour-plus depiction of utter lunacy. With time, however, I found myself increasingly challenged, perplexed and ultimately riveted by its layered approach, which simultaneously posed open-ended questions and trapped us in the clutches of its subjects. Some audiences were similarly affected; others fled during the more outrageously expressionistic bits. Rarely does a work confront its viewers with such a daring proposition; the possibility that it could receive global acclaim is even rarer. “The Act of Killing” deserves to win the Oscar not in spite of those walkouts but because of them.