The Act of Killing

There’s plenty of violence in Hollywood summer tentpole movies. In superhero films and toy adaptations, it’s become something resembling common practice to have a climax that involves the probable off-screen collateral deaths of thousands of nameless civilians. But most Hollywood film violence is of the largely inconsequential, routinely PG-13 variety, with the bad guy inevitably receiving their comeuppance, all of it “tastefully” lacking realism.

As if Hollywood’s representations of violence didn’t seem cartoonishly inconsequential enough, in a move approaching self-parody, this weekend saw the major release of a film involving supernatural cops who hunt down perpetrators that are already dead.

Early this year, in response to the controversy over the representation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, I quoted the argument from a friend’s rather great book that “movie violence” is a floating, elusive signifier; it hardly means one given thing, and its possible meanings and potential affects are largely dependent upon a great many intersecting factors. While I stand by this assertion, during the summer more than any time of year, it’s clear that Hollywood film violence can be relatively homogenous: typically passive, unimaginative, unserious, stultifying.

But during past few weeks, the limited release/arthouse sector has seen an abundance of films that represent violent actions in myriad ways, using and exploring violence towards varying ends, none of which involve a fleeting moment of utilitarian spectacle.

Only God Forgives

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As an unapologetic surveyor of style as he is an inventor of creative cinematic deaths, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives has created something of an issue within recent critical discourse: his style is just as conspicuous as his gore. Therefore, a reflex-conclusion can be that the former makes the latter subject to unjustifiable exploitation. While I welcome a serious conversation about the justifiability of excessive film violence, I find the maneuvers resulting from this conversation to be demonstrative of prior “justifications” in the face of Refn’s reliably and exceedingly bloody work: that The Driver’s excess/sadism was somehow narratively consistent with his hero status, or that Valhalla Rising displays the barbaric hypocrisies of early trans-Atlantic colonization.

After reading about the painterly but possibly “unjustifiable” violence of Refn’s latest, I was surprised to find that Only God Forgives contained a consistent internal movie-logic structure that made for a film far more coherent than Drive’s overt contradictions: unlike Drive’s operatic elevator scene, much of the gore in Only God Forgives is executed decisively, without prolonged focus on extending it into spectacle. Refn’s stylistic excesses were demonstrated much more overtly in his elliptical storytelling, geometric framing, and ostentatious employment of Cliff Martinez’s contagious score.

The excesses of Only God Forgives’s violence lie not in its representation, but its narrative use. The indestructible Thai police officer that is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) uses violence without hesitation, following through on his Old Testament justice with impersonal precision. This is perhaps what makes the film’s violence disturbing and affecting in a different way from Refn’s other work – while it has dire consequences upon the flesh, it does not seem to be carried out by anyone resembling a human being. I only remember one close-up of a violent act, a cutting of an underworld functionary’s eye that resembles Un Chien anadalou.

Beyond the grindhouse quality of this moment (Refn is, for better or worse, a bricoleur of cinema’s high and low cultures – martial arts and arthouse silences are, for him, all viable options emerging from the same cinematic clay), it’s hard not to see this isolated moment as a meta-provocation, as Refn aping Bronson, begging for the notoriety of imprisonment for his transgressions. It’s a performance of violence that consciously embodies pointed contradictions — think of how much of the film’s violence we don’t actually witness, including the film’s brusque ending.

Sound and fury and so on, but at least it looks pretty.

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Fruitvale Station

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It’s hard not to see Fruitvale Station through the lens of the George Zimmerman verdict; it’s the exact type of timeliness and relevance that one would hope a film doesn’t want or need. A lightning rod for powerful commentary on injustice in a society that refuses to admit its systemic, lingering racism. (Of course, none of these complicated circumstances made The Weinstein Co. hesitate from advertising the film in connection with post-Zimmerman discourse.)

Fruitvale Station is far from a perfect film; its last-day-in-the-life portrayal of  Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) verges on moments of calculated preciousness (regardless of accuracy/inaccuracy, I’m talking about the execution of the film itself); not that the film is in any way lacking in terms of the affect of its ending, one wonders if the act of violence that caps the film would feel even more arbitrary and infuriating if plenty of moments of Oscar’s last day seemed devoid of meaning in the everyday sense that we often experience. Unlike the other films on this list, Fruitvale Station is about one unconscionable, unimaginable act of carnage that ends as soon as it begins; this isn’t to say that the gunshot which kills Grant is the film’s only instance of violence, but that the entire film is organized around the question of how that single act is framed, and it’s a question that stemmed naturally from the viral activism subsequent to Grant’s murder.

Thankfully, writer/director Ryan Coogler eschewed the false sinner/saint binary, portraying the young Grant as riddled with a combination of shortcomings, difficulties, promise, and sincerity – his sizable problems stem from systemic inequalities and institutional prejudices that disproportionately affect African American men, but also from the fact that he’s 22 and knows that he needs to get things together a bit. Fruitvale Station is the type of movie people imagine when they rightfully criticize The Help for “requiring” Emma Stone to tell a story about African American activism and subject formation: Grant is a character typically in the margins of society, and the margins of narrative, but is obviously fully capable of a necessary and long-needed repositioning. To make a marginal character the central subject of a film about an unconscionably casual act of irreparable injustice is what makes American independent filmmaking a necessary institution: to inspire audiences to confront images, lives, and stories that aren’t represented elsewhere.

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The Act of Killing

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Of all the films on this list, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunner of a documentary is most overtly about representing violence in an investigative sense. In something of an experiment about representation itself, a group of Indonesian “gangsters” (their term) stage the interrogations and murders they committed in the Indonesian military’s 1965-66 purge of any resident labeled communist. What results is a shocking encounter with self-justification and conscience-closing in the face of atrocity.

But as much as the film is an activist’s command for international and domestic attention to Indonesia’s history of injustice (young Indonesians who saw the film have described it as an unveiling of what they thought they knew about their own history), it’s also a demonstration of how violence enacted in the name of ideology works at large.

How does the human mind cope with and justify murder on any scale? Remarkably, The Act of Killing investigates this process in macro and micro terms. The film surveys mass military demonstrations that reiterate received historical common wisdom about the purge of enemies as well as intimate encounters in which Indonesian history’s social actors reveal and acknowledge the despicable nature of their own acts, showing some signs of residual pain over the violence committed, if not remorse or full comprehension.

The Act of Killing strikingly blurs the line between violence and its representation. Rehearsals of the film-within-the-film are met with both laughter and abject horror by its participants; the children of the selected performers certainly have a hard time distinguishing staged persecution from the real thing. The aging gangsters regularly exchange tales of their violent conquests, a hyper-masculine ritual of self-representation that narrativizes (and thus makes comprehensible) their difficult-to-fathom experiences. They also describe their original encounters with violence in terms of cinema, imagining themselves as John Wayne or any other cinematic hero that wields a weapon in the service of a “righteous” ideology.

The Act of Killing stands as evidence that violence, both pre- and post-meditated, can only be understood, or dealt with, in terms of its capacity to fit into an existing representational regime in fiction. But the most disturbing thing about the documentary is that, after all of this explanation and performance of violence, the representation and the action still never convincingly meet; violence is only understood through its tools of abstraction.

More so than any film in recent memory (perhaps not since Shoah), The Act of Killing is about the interminable gap between atrocity, trauma, violence, and its capacity for representation. In representations of violence, we can attempt understanding, we can seek delusion, we can become pacified, we can experience an emboldening of ideology, we can have our ground shaken, we can move on untouched, but we can never truly know the act itself.


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