Movie Review: 'The Act of Killing' -- 4 stars
The Act of Killing
Documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer
Playing at Sunshine Cinema
The political theorist Hannah Arendt famously wrote of the "banality of evil," the notion that historic acts of mass murder and genocide were carried out by regular people imbued with the societally-fed belief in the justice of their actions.
In Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary "The Act of Killing," an extraordinary film that pushes the boundaries of what cinema can be, an Indonesian man named Anwar Congo and his friends gather to make an epic movie that tells the true story of their lives as small-time gangsters turned death squad leaders who helped lead the massacre of countless communists, ethnic Chinese and others following the overthrow of the government in 1965.
They speak of their actions with chilling candidness, illustrating the most industrious ways to murder a fellow human in great detail. The movie is very much about what it takes to get to the point where committing such a heinous act is rote and second nature, no different than eating a snack or walking the dog.
Their conduct is celebrated by a society that idolizes the gangster, repeatedly noting that the Indonesian word for it means "free man."
Oppenheimer provides a full-scale immersion in this mindset. He is a merciless interviewer, pushing the men to consider and reconsider the magnitude of the evil they perpetrated as the sites of mass murders are revisited. Moments later, the men play with their grandchildren, mug for the camera or go shopping in a luxury mall, seeming for all intents and purposes to be kindhearted and harmless.
The magnitude of this achievement, this depiction of a diseased and corrupt society that is in so many ways similar to our own, cannot be understated. In "The Act of Killing," Oppenheimer uses every cinematic tool at his disposal to brilliantly dissect the swirl of factors that collectively create a world where the murder of millions is an ideal to be celebrated. It's a film about guilt and memory, a movie that asks urgent questions and has the courage to follow them through to their unsettling conclusions.
There are images here that you'll never forget, but none more than this: a lonely man, sitting by himself and retching violently as the sins of his past hit him with galvanic force.