With his documentary "The Act of Killing," Joshua Oppenheimer has reset the bar for tragi-comedy. As in, don’t even bother trying, Hollywood. Ever again. In fact, why don’t we just dispense with next year’s Oscar race right now and give both the best documentary and the best feature award to this film? It even has a musical within it, so it could take that category at the Globes, too.
"The Act of Killing" is so disturbing on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where – and how -- to begin. It opens with one of the most beautiful images you’ll ever see, a building in the shape of a fish with a line of Indonesian women in fluorescent pink dancing out of its mouth. Two intense hours later the film ends with one of the most banal images you’ll ever see, but one preceded by a scene so harrowing, so deeply wrenching, it defies description. In between is like a ride to Hell in a meandering fun-house tram. This is a cinematic and human experience that will take days, perhaps weeks, months and years to digest.
The story told in "The Act of Killing" (which premiered at Telluride) is essentially the story of Anwar Congo, a “movie-house gangster” or small-time hood who liked American movies, stylish clothes, and illegal means of making a living. A member of a right-wing paramilitary group, Congo became in the mid-sixties a renowned and terrifying killer of communists (or so-called communists, or ethnic Chinese, or intellectuals, or people who simply refused to pay protection money). More than 1 million Indonesians were said to have been killed during this time, most of the bloody work done by young men like Congo and his fellow gangsters – a term said to derive from “free men,” men who like to do what they want even if it is wrong.
Now an amiable grandfather with sleeping problems, Congo is clearly troubled by his past. This vulnerability and a sense that the truth should be known leads him to agree to recreate some of the killings for Oppenheimer’s cameras – in the documentary as well as in an Indonesian feature film made by Congo and his collaborators. This bizarre collection of stooges, some of whom appear in drag, might function as a comedy troupe were they not already murdering thugs and rapists – think Jack Black and Mr. Hyde on bath salts.
And they are all the more disturbing because they so often seem so normal – a father shopping in the mall with his wife and pretty teenage daughter, another lying in bed blowing gum bubbles with his young kid, one man playing golf (“Relax and Rolex,” he says), another showing his crystal collection and the fake fish that plays, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” And yet the man shopping in the mall admits to once walking down the street killing every Chinese he saw, including his own girlfriend’s father. His own girlfriend’s father. And not all these thugs had blood literally on their hands; a newspaper publisher admits to interrogating suspected communists and then, with a nod of his head, sending them to their deaths. It was all so casual, like walking down the street.
“I wore jeans for killing,” says Congo.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about "The Act of Killing" is how paradoxically enjoyable it is to watch. It grabs you from the first moment and doesn't let go (and may never let go). Those who would shy away should see it. It corrects history, for both Indonesians and Americans, whose government tacitly supported these horrors, or at least their ends. But the film's greatest accomplishment may be to make the viewer actually feel for a monster – and yet also feel that whatever he suffers is well deserved, and too little too late; to recognize even just a tiny part of him in ourselves.