I love movies. I've loved them since forever. I've always said that movies aren't windows into other worlds, but doors. That with just a little push, I could walk through and experience these shared universes. I've always believed that.
But there are some doors that once opened can never be shut again, and doorways that once you pass through you can never go back. THE ACT OF KILLING is one of those films. It's one of the most horrible, devastating, and powerful documentaries ever made. I feel poisoned by what I have seen; these human monsters trying to come to terms with their own monstrousness. Some justify it, while for others it weighs on them like an anchor, or a pair of concrete blocks on their feet, taken from the gangster movies these men love so much.
Between the years of 1965 and 1966 in Indonesia, 2.5 million people were murdered, under the guise of a Communist purge, by gangsters sanctioned by the Indonesian government under tacit approval from the United States and other Western nations. Villages were destroyed, families driven apart, and anyone who spoke out against the ruling party was brutally killed. For these people, the Cold War was anything but; atrocity after atrocity was committed in the name of democracy, but the very meaning of democracy becomes fluid in a corrupt country where bribes are standard procedure and killers reminisce about the days they could rape and pillage with impunity. One of the mass murderers remembers telling one of his many rape victims, "It's going to be hell for you but heaven on earth for me," and showing a sickening nostalgia for those "good old days." These men, damned to hell on their best days, are all too eager to tell the world of their crimes. They're proud of what they've done, and they live in a world that is all too happy to oblige them.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer (incredibly, this is his first feature-length film) steps straight into this world under the guise of a filmmaker allowing these evil men to tell their stories in a movie. Many of these men have no regrets about what they have done and welcome the opportunity to talk about it, and in a society that considers them heroes, they have no reservations in talking about it on camera. They grew up on Hollywood cinema, after all, and everyone in movies was cool. They dressed like Hollywood celebrity, walked like them, and committed genocide, inspired by these movies they loved so much. Oppenheimer gives these men the opportunity to reenact these killings for posterity, and all of them are only too happy to comply. After all, they say, they won the war. They get to define the history, and how they will be remembered.
But what Oppenheimer does is revelatory - like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris (who both executive produced THE ACT OF KILLING), Oppenheimer isn't interested in versions of history, but simply the truth. And in THE ACT OF KILLING the truth seems to be obvious to everyone except these men who have done horrific deeds in the name of God and country. Oppenheimer's camera is an unblinking eye, staring straight at the face of evil without flinching, and we discover that even evil has its nuances. For a man like Adi Zulkadry, guilt doesn't enter into it at all - why, if you're bothered by bad dreams, just see a shrink and he'll give you "nerve vitamins" to make that go away. He sits, aloof, away from his family, weighted down by a past that he would never deny. He freely admits to cruelty, but believes that war justifies everything. But his eyes speak another truth.
For Anwar Congo, now a happy grandfather in his 60s, those acts and images are harder to shake off, especially when everyone around him is proclaiming him to be a hero. Congo embraces the idea of Oppenheimer's movie, hoping to tell his truth, but for Congo the truth is a mercurial thing, and elusive. He suffers from night terrors and you can see behind his grizzled eyes a man who may be coming to terms with the horrors he's committed. Oppenheimer isn't interested in typical Hollywood labels of goodness and evil, because in a world where evil is called heroic, and innocence is mercilessly destroyed under the illusion of patriotism, the film takes care to never let the audience forget these men and their horrible deeds. Congo wrestles with those deeds throughout the movie, trying to find some way - any way - to justify what he's done in his mind. Evil is at its worst under the best intentions; it is at its most free when everything is permitted.
We follow several mass murderers in THE ACT OF KILLING, these well-dressed, well-off monsters in regular clothes, living their lives on the time they stole from so many innocent people. None of them show any signs of remorse, but you can see behind their masks the price of their deeds slipping through. Oppenheimer isn't just exposing these monsters to the light of truth, but hoping that some of that light catches in their eyes, and that maybe some of them - or just one - will understand what they have done. For Anwar's moment of reckoning, sitting with his grandchildren watching their grandfather reenact a murder, it hits with all the violence and weight of a collision of stars, and it's one of the most emotionally devastating moments in cinema I've ever seen.
The final scene of THE ACT OF KILLING, as Anwar Congo revisits one of the many locations where he used to brutally murder innocent people, does not blink as Oppenheimer simply documents Congo trying to purge these horrors from himself. He fails. For audiences who see THE ACT OF KILLING, they, too will be unable to be free of what they see. They will be unable to look away from the harsh truth that Joshua Oppenheimer shows them. THE ACT OF KILLING is the most important film to be released this year. It is difficult filmgoing, and unflinching. For these people, there is no simple redemption, no walking away into the sunset like so many of the movies that these brutal killers love. THE ACT OF KILLING is a film that wounds. It is brilliant cinema that must be seen.