Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer
Produced by: Signe Byrge
So folks, I don't know how y'all feel, but I certainly feel like time is passing by like a mother the past few years. I wonder if that has anything to do with my being bored and not working (bit of a dry patch right now, August'll be pretty full on!), but my guess is that I'm suffering from that post-graduation existential angst that had me rambling on about Benjamin Braddock a couple of weeks ago and "Hello, darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again," and what have you. In the midst of this dubious state of mind, I've been to the cinema a bit, having now seen not just this, but also Pacific Rim, World War Z and Monsters University. I hope to see more, but I reckon things'll be a bit more sporadic over the next month and a half, so I have to ask you to make an extra-special effort to, as always, keep your eyes posted!
Today's film up for review is the documentary feature by Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act Of Killing. The film has already racked up some serious credentials in terms of it's reputation, with critiques abound both praiseworthy and derogatory. On the pros, Cosmo Landeman, the now-former resident film critic of The Sunday Times' Culture magazine gave it a rare five-star rating (I've been reading that paper since I was like ten, and believe me, that is quite a feat), and Werner Herzog, who saw the film before signing in the executive producer role for which he is credited, said, and I quote, "it is unprecedented in the history of cinema." On the negative side, it has been argued that the film lacks the historical context necessary to truly explore it's subjects and some felt that the film not only glorifies mass murder, but that Oppenheimer tricked his subjects into bad faith. So, having gotten the serious baggage out of the way, here's a brief conceptual synopsis: following the failed September 30th Movement in 1965 Indonesia, gangster Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were chosen by the government to lead the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra as part of the killing in the Indonesian massacre of 1965-68. Their activities saw them become revered as founding fathers of right-wing paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila, members of whom include government ministers, boasting about their corruption. Basically, director Oppenheimer proposes to these men that the only they can depict the truth of the brutality of their killings is that they shoot their own personal re-enactments of the murders, and they jump eagerly at the opportunity to do. You can see already how things are getting a bit strange here, I gather?
As you can see, I went into the movie with all this in context, and while I highly respect the opines of Sensei Herzog, I understand that no one man's word is gospel, so I did go in with an open mind. However, I'd be lying if I said that the great master was wrong, because this is a magnificent piece of artistry and quite possibly the best film I have seen since my 2012 movie of the year, The Turin Horse. That reads the end of a review, but hear me out and I'll try to sell you on this one. The first thing to say about the movie is the fact that despite it's being about a very serious topic and shedding light on some genuinely horrible human rights atrocities, I found it be a very watchable, indeed, entertaining film. Oppenheimer was criticised by some for the stance (or lack thereof) he took with his subjects, but I think that is key to the enjoyment of the work. Dan Hewitt in Empire Magazine recently wrote (I'm paraphrasing) that documentary film has become synonymous with polemic, and what Oppenheimer does is quite the opposite. We see these gangsters gloat and revel in the sheer narcissism with which they approached their murders, often inspired by their favourite movies from Hollywood, and there is some Goodfellas/Sopranos-esque humour in watching them talk about killing. Don't get me wrong, it's incontrovertibly disgusting what they did, but by God, like those previously mentioned works, did they have a fun time doing it. As such, although I was surrounded by a largely silent theatre, I was laughing harder than I do at most comedies. This depiction by Oppenheimer of truth from a near-complete level of objectivity gives The Act Of Killing, for all it's (purposeful) contrivances, a feeling of authenticity that many films are lacking. Also, unlike many of the reflexive qualities and intertextuality that most documentary filmmakers try to inject into their films, this reflexiveness does not intrude on the seamless stream of our experience here. The 'films' that the gangsters make are propagandistic in their nature, (re)inventing themselves in the vein of their favourite western, gangster and musical heroes. They too, aware of the doom and gloom seriousness of many of these types of movies, talk about how they must have humour in their films so people don't get bored watching. However, what would normally come across as simple farce in their amateur endeavours ('Anwar's Nightmare' is a real treat) is farcically surreal and mesmerising as we explore, from our numerous degrees of separation, their own explorations of their heinous crimes. It all culminates in a mind-boggling sequence late in the movie (which I will not do the dishonour of spoiling) that leaves you genuinely lost for words and feeling stuck as to how you're meant to react to this movie. Although I understand I have perhaps deviated from my usual approach of cinematography, music, editing etc. (all of which are done with extraordinary harmony and seamlessness, particularly for a contemporary documentary, a medium almost bounded by default to postmodernity), I feel that The Act Of Killing is a movie that garners a different analytical study, as the film itself does challenge the art form of cinema in a way that I have never seen done before. It's hard to be a genuinely original movie these days, but this proves that the medium has miles yet to go! The final major thing I'd like to say about what is good about The Act Of Killing (it's a highly textured movie, but I'll leave the details for you folks to discover) is that despite all of the humour and the fact that it is a perversely entertaining film, there is an undercurrent of high tension that runs throughout. We the audience feel like we're walking a tightrope, and eventually we fall off and it hits you on the head with the full, sheer weight of the horror of these human rights atrocities. I'm sure it probably comes at different points for different people, but for me it came during the set-up for one of the gangsters' re-enactments, and we are informed quite blatantly of the artifice, yet despite this, it still made me jump, scared me like I haven't been scared watching a movie for some time. It comes crashing down over your head like a giant wave, that the whole exploration of evil is ambiguous, that it's not something perpetrated by despotic raving monsters, but in fact oftentimes by normal people. The blank waters that remain in the tide, well, it's up for us as to what we make of it.
Now, as you've guessed no doubt, I absolutely loved this film, and I will very passionately get behind trying to promote it as best I can, but there are a few things that should be pointed out, not necessarily as faults, but as elements that certain members of the audience may find it hard to get past. I understand fully and respect that there will be people out there (although the general critical consensus would argue otherwise) who will not like this movie. It is a challenging piece that certainly prods you into a reaction, and I defy anyone to leave the whole experience without a reaction. That said, there will be those who cannot abide the form and objectivity with which these admittedly detestable subjects are approached.
With that taken into account, I still say that this is an outright masterpiece, the first that I have seen after my return to reviewing in May. It's genuinely one of those movies that despite all the rambling, discussion and analysis I've subjected it to, I still feel I have only glanced the surface, touched the precipice of just how damn good this is. So much so, in fact, that I must say, my plans are going to extend beyond the medium of film criticism in order to ensure that people are able to see this movie. It's a mesmerising, bizarre and (surprisingly) entertaining piece of cinema, and one of the few legitimately unique experiences you can get from a contemporary motion picture.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.5/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Buoyed over (believe me!)