As the old saying goes, THE ACT OF KILLING must be seen to be believed. Few other nonfiction films swerve so fluidly between riotous absurdity and appalling horror; this one’s often both simultaneously. In 1965, Indonesia’s military overthrew its government. Consequently, death squads composed of gangsters-for-hire and various paramilitary groups slaughtered over two million communist citizens. Nearly half a century later, director Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to interview some of these surviving death squad leaders. None of them were ever punished for their acts—after all, what they did was legal in their regime; to this day, they’re perceived as pillars of a society where youth paramilitary outfits continue to flourish.

Oppenheimer could have profiled these men, left it at that and ended up with an interesting film, even something worthy of Errol Morris or Werner Herzog (two of this film’s producers). Instead, he did something nearly brilliant and kind of crazy: he asked the men to make a movie of sorts, one recreating the various ways in which they exterminated the communists. Much of THE ACT OF KILLING is a behind-the-scenes account of those efforts. A few of the recreations take a deliberately cinematic, “entertaining” approach: one meticulously stylizes itself like a 1940s gangster noir, complete with heavy shadows and period suits, while another features a chorus of dancing girls, exotic, colorful locales like a scenic waterfall, one of the more portly men done up in elaborate drag (wearing sparkly, revealing outfits that would make Divine blush) and a rendition of a 1960s movie theme song that you’ll never, ever hear the same way again.

Some of the recreations are far more realistic and startlingly so. When a depiction of an attack on a rural village casts hundreds of present-day villagers as victims, the filming itself ends up so raw and intense that more than a few “victims” are genuinely traumatized by the experience. The whole process is highly disturbing to watch, all but forcing us to ask, why produce these recreations? Are they meant to shock the audience in showing how brutal these acts could be? Or are they more for the killers’ benefit, an attempt to get at least a few of them (and by default, the society at large) to realize, decades removed, how immoral these acts were and what real implications they had on their victims?

As the recreations play out, their impact on the killers is not always crystal clear. Many seem generally unaffected by the acts, none more so than Adi Zulkadry, whom we first see exiting a plane wearing a black t-shirt with the word “Apathetic” in big yellow letters sprawled across the front. Zulkadry is unrepentant to an extreme regarding his participation in the killings—he gives off a sense of being at peace with himself, only becoming cagey when Oppenheimer pushes the notion that he did anything immoral. In contrast, consider Anwar Congo, one of the most revered killers whom the film slowly gravitates toward. An almost beatific, gaunt, white-haired elder, he initially makes excuses for the killings, telling us he learned to live with them by partaking in a lot of “eating, boozing, dancing” (promptly doing a pathetic little jig for the camera). Then, as the recreations commence, we discover just how haunted the killings have left him. One of his recurring nightmares even becomes fodder for a dream sequence in the recreations, while Congo himself plays the victim in the gangster noir pastiche.

A simpler film would conclude with Congo full of remorse and begging the director or perhaps one of the victim’s descendants for forgiveness. Instead, Oppenheimer conveys this project’s moral complexity with two astonishing final scenes. The first illustrates how wide the chasm between action and perception distressingly remains for Congo, while the second captures, with chilling austerity, an involuntary guttural reaction to that chasm when he directly faces his own past.  Grade: A

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