The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing is sort of about a genocide that took place in the mid-sixties that the world has largely forgotten about because of, you know, all those other genocides we’re always doing – I mean honestly, who can keep up anymore? More than that, it’s about watching the people who committed those murders reenact their own killings in chilling, theatrical and self-aggrandizing detail. I also saw The Wolverine this week, but sure, let’s dig into this fucking mess instead.
The reenactments in The Act of Killing do serve a purpose. I want to make that very clear, because if they were just a cheap gimmick it would mean that Joshua Oppenheimer is just a huge piece of exploitative shit. You kind of have to watch out for that in documentaries because documentarians know just as well as we do that having a great “hookâ€ is all a documentary really needs to be successful, so they have a lot of incentive to spice things up. Instead, watching the killers tell their story through their own artistic means helps us understand who they are and why they killed in ways that just listening to them speak couldn’t possibly reveal. The entire process of telling the story, arranging scenes and playing either themselves or their own victims allows for the truth to kind slip out through the cracks. For instance, an interview-only format wouldn’t have allowed for a murderer to confess that if they tell go through with telling this story, everyone will finally know that they lied about their victims being guilty.
I don’t know if I can even say that The Act of Killing is truly horrifying. The act of killing, as in actual murder, certainly is. The movie is more just so mind-fuckingly surreal and insane that it feels like all of reality has jumped the shark. The subjects of the documentary say and do things so callously evil and corrupt that if I’d seen them in a work of fiction I would’ve spent the whole movie thinking “Yeah, we get it – people are terrible.â€ They are also so unrelentingly evil that any time something terrible went down or was discussed I barely even had a chance to think “Wait, did that actually just happen?â€ before something even worse started happening. It’s two hours of hacky alt-history “what if the Nazis had won?â€ stuff, except that in this case the Nazis did win and fifty years later they’re still around to talk about how proud of it they all are.
There probably isn’t another documentary that will expose you to the same amount of widespread evil that The Act of Killing will and if there is, it probably won’t make you look it right in the face so much. Putting a face on genocide is always tricky because if something has a face, we can relate to it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to take pride in killing an innocent man just because I can, but I could imagine pretty well what’s it like to go cellphone shopping with my wife and daughter. Because in The Act of Killing I’ve seen the same man do both. Out of all of the uncomfortable places a movie can put you, that has be at least top five. So much more than just forcing you to admit that even killers are people, it’s a movie that forces you to face the truth that all people are potential killers – and that the things stopping them from killing might be more easily swept aside than we’re willing to admit.
Reading that last statement, I know it sounds extremely hacky. That’s what almost any movie that involves killing is trying to say. The difference is that The Act of Killing is showing you why all those movies are trying to say that by proving that it’s true in real life just as much as it is in Dexter. It’s about as must-see as a documentary can get. The one caveat I can think of is that the murderers were actually paid a per diem during filming. I feel weird about that. I mean it’s not like they’re getting a percentage of the back end – they were already paid whether you see it or not. But if I’d known about that beforehand I might have just waited for it on Netflix. So if murderers being paid per diem to reenact murders bothers you, or you just don’t feel like you can handle something this intense, or (most likely) The Act of Killing isn’t playing near you then go see The Wolverine! It wasn’t too bad, and it’s great to see Hugh Jackman back in the saddle. So there’s that.