‘The Act of Killing’ artfully examines ugliest aspects of human nature

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From classics like “Singin’ in the Rain” to goofball comedies like “Tropic Thunder,” movies about movies are embedded with a unique type of charm. When filmmakers invite audiences into their own worlds, the result is often insightful, realistic and pleasingly self-aware. American director Joshua Oppenheimer puts a sinister twist on the film-within-a-film genre with his award-winning, surreal documentary, “The Act of Killing,” in which he chronicles the decay of a glamorized, Hollywood-inspired dream into an all-too-real nightmare.

The premise of the documentary is novel. In 1965, a military dictatorship overthrew the Indonesian government and put to death any suspected dissidents of the new regime, primarily alleged communists and ethnic Chinese. The gangsters and paramilitary members who carried out these mass killings (estimates range from 500,000 to more than 1 million in the span of a year) are now national heroes, honored and wealthy. Oppenheimer asked these men to recreate their killings on film, drawing on any genre they wanted, from western to film noir to the style of classic American gangster movies and musicals. The resulting expose fades in and out of fiction, offering unsettling insight into the memories and fantasies of admitted sadists.

Oppenheimer opens the film with the words of French philosopher Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” Voltaire’s words serve as a launching point into an unreal world where murderers are revered as luminaries and war crimes are romanticized and enhanced with movie magic. The primary subject of the film is Anwars Congo, a former Indonesian death-squad leader who got his start as a “movie-theater gangster” scalping tickets to American films. In both his killing and his acting, Congo credits movie legends Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Wayne as his inspirations. He even learned his signature move — wrapping wire around a victim’s neck and pulling it until he or she suffocates — from American mobster movies.

As Congo begins to reimagine his killings for the camera, he and his fellow nationalists are unapologetically nostalgic for their bloody glory days. One man boastfully reminisces about the day he killed his Chinese girlfriend’s father, while another is eager to share a story about the time a death squad pulled his stepfather away in the middle of the night and murdered him. While the killers laugh away, however, the villagers they coerce into recreating these memories seem genuinely distressed by the reality of the violence. In one particularly upsetting scene, two panicking children, unaware that the actors are pretending, fight to save their grandpa from being killed before their eyes.

Such is the dilemma of “The Act of Killing.” It is punishing to the actors involved, for whom the lines between reality and fiction are often painfully blurred. It is punishing to the memories of the deceased, whose deaths have not been apologized for and whose murderers are allowed to live freely and fully. It is even punishing to the subjects themselves, who are forced to confront their own cruelty and culpability.

As aggressively as Oppenheimer rips open the wounds of Indonesia’s sordid past, however, the film is ultimately less about punishment and more about compassion — not only for the victims but also for the men who ruined their own lives when they took the lives of others. As the former gangsters reach further and further back into their memories of the events of 1965, they begin to crumble under the weight of their guilty consciences and decades of nightmares.

“The Act of Killing” is unlike anything in its genre. It does not inform, reveal or simply tell a story. It brings to the forefront the ugliest, most corrupted elements of human nature, but it does so with enough artistry and humanity to make it a truly beautiful piece of cinema.

Contact Grace Lovio at [email protected].