More terrifying than any horror film, and more intellectually adventurous than just about any 2013 release so far, The Act of Killing is a major achievement, a work about genocide that rightly earns its place alongside Shoah as a supreme testament to the cinema's capacity for inquiry, confrontation, and remembrance.
To dub Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary a masterpiece is at once warranted and yet somehow limiting, the term too narrow for what the first-time filmmaker achieves with his debut. A sprawling study of the aftermath of the 1960s mass killings in Indonesia by Suharto's coup-installed military regime and death squads, the film morphs, in ways both ghastly and glorious, into an examination of institutionalized violence, guilt on individual and national scales, and the role of cinema to both shape and reflect our darkest impulses.
The Act of Killing shares the keen eye for investigation that defines the nonfiction work of its illustrious producers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. And like their docs, it spirals into horrifying surrealism from a seemingly simple starting point: in this case, interviewing some of the paramilitary leaders and self-described "gangsters" employed to eradicate anyone deemed a "communist" — in practice, almost anyone not loyal to the new regime.
The surprise is that these men are eager to tell their tales, often indulging in graphic detail to describe, for example, the best means of murdering captives without spilling much blood (with a wire around the neck). They even enjoy re-enacting their state-sanctioned murders on camera, at Oppenheimer's invitation, adopting the lurid styles of the violent Hollywood crime films that influenced their actual violence back in the day.
Oppenheimer opens with the killers making their movie. We see the rotund, disheveled Herman Koto and the slender, debonair Anwar Congo — the latter responsible for more than 1,000 murders, many carried out with that wire-strangling technique — searching neighborhoods they once attacked for locals to play parts in a re-enactment. What follows is ugly, even mad: Surrounded by a throng of onlookers, a proud and enthusiastic Koto shows the crowd how to panic. He flails his arms and screams hysterically as he pretends to be a woman begging that her house not be burned down. At first confused, a few women comply with Koto's demands to mimic this performance; later, the kids forced to participate in this upsetting pantomime are quickly brought to tears. It's impossible to forget that some of these people might have suffered real crimes at Koto and Congo's hands.
That's just one example of how the documentary twists reality and fiction. That knottiness culminates with Congo's neighbor recalling to these killers his own tale of woe, when his stepfather answered a nighttime knock at the door in 1965 and was never seen again. Speaking with nervous laughter, the neighbor professes to Congo and Koto that he of course means no criticism with his story — and then, to prove it, he agrees to play the role of a strangled victim in a scene set in a nightclub, pretending to be choked to death by the men responsible for the deaths of members of his family.
These monsters proudly proclaim that their work in the '60s was influenced by the movies, although they anachronistically cite Scarface and The Godfather as direct influences on both their tactics and their sleek, swanky fashion sense. It's also clear that their madness stems from something deeper in the country's fabric. The Act of Killing examines these killers' relationship to the 3 million-strong paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth, which continues to operate outside Indonesian law even as it works in tandem with the government. In a stunning scene, the country's vice president speaks to the group, jokingly condoning their blackmail-and-beatings thuggery. What emerges is a portrait of systemic fanaticism and brutality celebrated by both the political powers that be and TV personalities who merrily praise the men's noble "extermination" work.
Damning only through incisive observation, Oppenheimer presents Indonesia as a country where the reigning historical narrative validates mass murder as necessary and good. That means glorified horror abounds in the men's re-creations of their atrocities, such as the massacre of a village full of women and children — a sequence that culminates with one paramilitary strongman's boastful recollections about raping 14-year-old girls. This vileness goes hand in hand with surrealism, no instance more surprising than a musical number in which the men (including a cross-dressing Koto) and dancers emerge from a giant seaside fish statue. As they sway in front of a waterfall, some of their "victims" appear to thank them for murdering them. Then the killers ascend to heaven.
Congo and Koto's cold-hearted compatriot Adi Zulkadry believes that his assassinations were justified because he committed them, got away with them, and continues to be praised for them. That ruthless winners-write-history morality is countered by the transformation of Congo, who by placing himself in the role of those he killed — including one fictionalized re-creation designed like a '20s gangster movie — finds himself increasingly horrified, maybe even driven insane, by what he's done. Congo's awakened self-awareness is a stunning example of the cinema's power to expose truth and alter perception. Healing, however, is a commodity in short supply in The Act of Killing, which affords neither hope for a brighter Indonesian future nor salvation for Congo. In a final scene of literal gut-wrenching intensity, he visits his old rooftop-courtyard killing ground. Left alone with the memories of his sins, he's wracked with uncontrollable retching. Nothing, though, will come up — it's a lifetime's worth of evil finally rising to the surface, but still impossible to purge.