‘The Act of Killing’ Review: Regret Is Personified As The Cameras Roll

By  · Published on July 19th, 2013

Editor’s note: Our review of The Act of Killing originally ran during this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the movie opens in limited theatrical release.

While everyone has experienced situations in which someone has upset us and we demand an apology, everyone also knows that you cannot truly force someone to apologize. The documentary The Act of Killing presents an almost social experiment exploring what happens when you give those who have done something terrible (in this case, killing thousands) a forum through which to tell their story to see if a new perspective changes their attitude.

Back in 1960’s, Indonesia was riddled with “gangsters” and death squad leaders who persecuted and murdered thousands of alleged Communists throughout the region. The fear these unjust murders created is still alive today, with large paramilitary organizations like the Pancasila Youth continuing to grow in staggering numbers. The Act of Killing asks these former killers to make a movie about their experiences and then allows the film’s subjects to run the show from forcing friends and family to act in the film to selecting elaborate costumes.

The film focuses on Anwar Congo, a former gangster, who begins as a bit of a showboating caricature – a man proud of what he’s done and constantly talking about how he mirrored himself after the actors in the films he also scalped tickets for. Congo clearly has an interest in film and takes on the role of the director, explaining how the film needed comic relief (in the ridiculous form of death squad leader Herman Koto in drag) and analyzing what different images, like a waterfall, will symbolize.

But when Congo begins watching the footage the filmmakers are capturing, a clear shift begins to take place in him. Congo mentions he is plagued with nightmares from his past actions, proven by his sleepless nights at home, but seeing and experiencing the reenactments of these moments start causing a visceral, physical reaction in Congo. His hand visibly shakes during a scene that has him experiencing the kind of torture he once bragged about “creating” and returning to the site where he had murdered so many elicits awful sounds from the man, forcing him to sit down to try and regain his composure. Gone is the swashbuckling, untouchable “hero” full of bravado and in its place is a trembling, old man.

Filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and a third contributor (noted as anonymous) wisely keep to the background, taking on the true role of documentarians as they allow things to unfold around them while constantly keeping the focus on Congo. The true power of The Act of Killing comes from watching Congo’s increasingly tortured reactions to the footage and scenes he is creating. During one of the bigger action scenes featuring the terrorizing of women and children as their homes are burned to the ground, Congo becomes visibly upset. When Oppenheimer asks Congo what is wrong, Congo regretfully admits, “I didn’t think it would look this brutal.” This is where The Act of Killing shines, and the experiment seems to pay off.

Watching an old man finally experience real regret certainly does not make up for the past, but seeing such a change is incredibly compelling and brings up bigger questions of the nature of human beings. The film is at its best when it is focused on Congo and with a total running time of 125 minutes, the narrative would have benefited from tighter editing and less time spent with Congo’s friends and former colleagues.

The Act of Killing successfully documents a man finally coming to terms with the upsetting truth about himself, but becomes muddled when the focus shifts away from this haunting transformation.

The Upside: Interesting and powerful; successful hands-off approach from filmmakers; a provocative history lesson on the nature and motivations of people.

The Downside: Needed sharper editing to decrease length and keep focus on main character.

On the Side: The risk of documenting this story is clear in the film’s credits with the majority of the crew members noted as “Anonymous,” proving that there is still a real threat to those bringing the truth behind this “history” to light.