In a country where killers are celebrated as heroes, the filmmakers challenge unrepentant death squad leaders to dramatize their role in genocide. The hallucinatory result is a cinematic fever dream, an unsettling journey deep into the imaginations of mass-murderers and the shockingly banal regime of corruption and impunity they inhabit.
I’ve never seen anything quite like Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary ‘The Act of Killing’. With its horrific subject matter, the film is extremely difficult to watch. Oppenheimer was born in my native state, Texas, but now resides mostly in London. Eight years ago, he embarked on a mission to Indonesia to document the victims of the government sponsored genocide of Communists following the 1965 military takeover.
After interviewing some of the victims, the director met a few of the perpetrators who actually carried out the brutal killings. Eventually, his entire film focused on the killers, with no time given to the victims. In an original take on the documentary genre, Oppenheimer allowed these mass murderers not only to laugh and talk fondly about their murders, but even to re-enact them in the form of their favorite types of films, which include old-school gangster movies, horror, and even a musical comedy. These criminals are completely unapologetic about what they did.
The documentary mostly follows Anwar Congo, now an elderly man. Congo was one of the lead gangsters that carried out the government sanctioned murders of Indonesian Communists in the ’60s. He has killed over one thousand people. Yes, you read that right – one thousand. The government formed paramilitary death squads and hired local street thugs to carry out the killings. Before his mass murders, Congo was a movie ticket scalper. He happily describes how he killed his victims, and explains that his favorite method was strangling them with metal wire, because it was fast and easy to clean up.
Congo wasn’t alone in the murders. He was joined by another man who now has a family, seems to be well off, has no remorse, and is quite enthusiastic about his murderous past. He even gloats about killing his girlfriend’s father because he thought the man was a Communist. We also get a glimpse of some of the paramilitary soldiers, one of whom brags about raping 14-year-old girls and killing them. The camera follows a few of the state’s leaders and military officials as they travel from local business to local business, shaking down the shop owners for money and threatening violence if they don’t pay enough.
At a certain point, everything comes back to Anwar Congo, who finally starts to show a hint of remorse for his past evil deeds. He’s still haunted in his nightmares by the ghosts of his victims and sometimes wakes up scared. In particular, he’s terrified of a man he beheaded with a machete in the middle of a forest, but didn’t close his eyes after killing him. In another pivotal moment, he decides to play the victim in the film, and one of his friends will play a version of himself. As he gets heavily bloodied in makeup, his favorite method of killing is performed on him, which causes him to break down in disbelief that he’s done it to so many people.
Not only do we see these evil men still alive today – happy, unapologetic and still thinking the same way – we see parts of Indonesia that are solely run by the paramilitary and gangsters, without any hope. It’s truly frightening. These evil men are protected by their country and will never receive a single ounce of punishment for what they did.
‘The Act of Killing’ is extremely difficult to watch. At times, you’ll want to get out of your seat and demand these men be brought to justice. It’s sad, powerful, important, and must be seen. There is a reason that iconic filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers on this. ‘The Act of Killing’ is a chilling film, one that you won’t soon forget.
'The Act of Killing' comes with an impressive 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. If you noticed during the end credits, the entire Indonesian crew is labeled as Anonymous, and they all shot the documentary with small digital cameras throughout Indonesia over several years. Needless to say, there wasn't any real professional equipment during the shoot. That being said, Alamo Drafthouse has given us an excellent looking Blu-ray with stunning detail. The detail is well-defined, especially during the interviews where there are closeups of the actors faces that show their wrinkles and scars.
The textures in the military uniforms also stand out nicely. During the re-creation scenes, the detail gets even sharper as they were in a studio with somewhat professional lighting and equipment, rather than the handheld cameras during the interviews and out "in the field". The black levels were mostly deep and inky and the skin tones were always natural. The colors are bright and vibrant throughout with some scenes looking much brighter than normal, but this is not a compression issue, but rather a source issue from the time of filming. There are no real flaws or other problems with the image other than some video noise, but again, I believe this to be stemming from the cheap equipment used and the environment, rather than the transfer itself. This is an excellent video presentation given the source materials.
This release comes with a great lossless DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix and sounds amazing for a documentary. Being a documentary and not a heavy action movie, the sound doesn't take full advantage of the 5.1 all of the time. Instead, we have a front heavy audio track this is elegantly performed. The dialogue is always crystal clear without any pops, cracks, or hissing. The entire audio language is in Indonesian with great English subtitles.
Oppenheimer chose to edit certain sounds out of the film to focus on a certain noise to show the brutality of some of the violence. Once that single noise could be heard for a moment, he adds in the rest of the ambient noises from the city and nature. The soundtrack and music for the film always adds a quirky, awkward, and at times inappropriate vibe to make us feel uncomfortable while watching. But the soundtrack is full and loud and makes great use of the rear speakers from time to time. This is a solid audio presentation.
Audio Commentary - Director Joshua Oppenheimer and Executive Producer Werner Herzog give an excellent commentary on the director's cut of the film that made me giddy from start to finish. Most of the time, Herzog is doing a Q & A with Oppenheimer as he asks Oppenheimer to discuss some of his shooting styles, then comments on them himself by either praising or critiquing. It was quite funny. Oppenheimer also discusses how he shot some of the scenes of the film and what happened off camera. This is an excellent commentary track. In fact, it might be one of my favorites in recent memory.
Interview with Joshuah Oppenheimer (HD, 46 mins.) - An excellent inter view with director Joshua Oppenheimer on the news program 'Democracy Now'. Here he talks about making the film, the interviews he conducted with the killers and the victim's families, as well as the reaction to the film in Indonesia. Oppenheimer also tells us why he thinks Anwar wanted to re-enact his murders. Great interview.
Werner Herzog and Errol Morris on 'The Act of Killing' (HD, 13 mins.) - The HBO show 'VICE' did a segment on 'The Act of Killing' where Herzog and Morris discuss the film and why they chose to be a part of it.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 11 mins.) - There are four deleted scenes that are all worth watching. One scene includes the newspaper publisher who says he could never kill somebody, but then says he and Anwar would have killed the director back in the day.
Trailer (HD, 2 mins.) - The trailer for the film.
Booklet - An essay by Errol Morris called 'The Murders of Gonzago'.
'The Act of Killing' is one of the most sadistic and powerful documentaries ever to grace the big screen. Joshua Oppenheimer perfectly crafted this documentary and showed us how a country and a few gangsters brutally murdered thousands of people for no real reason and got away with it. In fact, they are held in high regard to this day. This is one haunting movie you will not soon forget. The video and audio presentations are top notch, with several excellent extras. 'The Act of Killing' is highly recommended.