With his documentary festival hit "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. Drafthouse opens the movie limited on July 19.
"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.