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Review: Tragi-Comedy 'Act of Killing' Confronts the Killer Inside (TRAILER)

Photo of Tom Christie By Tom Christie | Thompson on Hollywood July 18, 2013 at 1:48PM

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'
'The Act of Killing'

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.

This article is related to: Berlin International Film Festival, Festivals, The Act of Killing , Reviews, Reviews, Los Angeles Film Festival

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.