The Act of Killing (Norway/Denmark/UK, 2012)

act_of_killingDirected by: Joshua Oppenheimer. I’ve put off writing this review for a long time because it’s one of the most significant movies that will be released in my lifetime and I want to look back at this post and be able to say: “Yes. What an intelligent, coherent review. I really nailed it with that one.” In reality, I’m just dumbfounded. I could either remain completely mute on this movie and tell you to go see it for yourself, or else I could write a PhD dissertation on this film (and many, I’m sure, are doing just that). I suppose the brave thing is to come to a middle ground, and write something. If you’ve at least heard the brief synopsis or read an article about this film, then you’re probably as intrigued as I was (and if you haven’t done at least that, then go check it out right now because I hate synopsizing). If you’re at all concerned with modernity, with empire, with morality, with the social sphere, with ideology, with the human condition, nature versus nurture, and a million other significant, interesting topics, you should see this movie. There are so many levels here. First of all, the subject matter, which touches on all of those things, and second, the context—movies themselves, American cinema as a major shaping force in real life violence. This film makes a really interesting contribution to that whole conversation about violence in movies versus violence in real life (made all the more interesting when you remember that this ugly, violent regime depicted in the film was committing its atrocities with the diplomatic and monetary support of the United States). There is an awful lot of stuff going on in this movie, but the aspect that makes it all the more compelling is the way that the form shapes the content. The cinematic style of this movie, because it’s influenced partly under the direction of its two main subjects, the “gangsters”/mass executioners Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, is one of the most surreal styles I’ve ever seen, partly because it’s slightly amateurish, because of cultural differences between our expectations and the views of the Indonesians, and because of director Oppenheimer’s complicated role as a mediator/shaper of the material, all of which culminates in this being the most singularly bizarre film I’ve ever seen. If you think of the way that David Lynch’s Dune is a bizarre film, you’re getting close, but being a fictional Hollywood sci-fi epic obviously waters down its ability to be truly subversive. This film is literally dealing with genocide, and you’ve got your eyes glued to mass killers for two hours, which already conveys a tremendous amount of gravity and significance onto you as a spectator. The fact that these killers have not and likely never will see an international human rights court, that they won, and now they get to write history, adds another fascinating layer, especially when the film you’re watching is one of their tools of writing their history. Added to that is the fact that the style they choose, the filmic vocabulary they want to work with (guided by their director) is a series of surreal, hallucinatory, almost nausea-inducing, low-budget interpretations of Hollywood film genres in which they re-commit their crimes, and in Congo’s case, try to personally reckon with their conflicted feelings about their crimes. And, on top of it all, the fact that these two guys have such goofy, irreverent personalities makes this film truly surreal and absurd. Oppenheimer takes full advantage of these guys’ (likely unintended) comic timing, making this a genuinely funny film. There are at least a dozen genuine belly laughs in this movie (more than I can say for most modern comedies), and it’s a film about genocide. That’s already a good recipe for some surreal, conflicting, complicated shit. Now, I’m still buzzing about this movie, and I’m not sure how objective I can be in weighing it. My first impression (and third, fourth, tenth impressions) tells me that this is a technically well made film, and actually is a fucking masterpiece. I’m open to the idea that all of the things I’ve just mentioned are just the candy, the sugar around the pill, what I sometimes refer to (to myself) as the “markers” of a film—a few good actors, a cool setting, a few cool shots, or a some great moments in the soundtrack—the shiny diamonds encrusted around what is sometimes a turd. But I really don’t think that’s the case here. I think what we have here, in fact, in accordance with (in spite of?) the glowing reviews it’s receiving, is a genuinely brilliant, moving, heartbreaking, devastating, entertaining, enlightening, horrifying and hilarious documentary about genocide and militarism and patriotism and morality and relativism and history and cinema itself. Even that cursory summary sentence doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this film, and compared to most films, that’s a pretty damn good place to start. At the risk of embarrassing my future self, I’ll go ahead and say that this is, by so many fucking criteria, the best film I’ve ever seen and perhaps will ever see.

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4 responses to “The Act of Killing (Norway/Denmark/UK, 2012)

  1. Pingback: Route Irish (UK/France/Belguim, 2010) | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2013 | Offhand Reviews·

  3. Pingback: Meru (USA, 2015) | Offhand Reviews·

  4. Pingback: The Raid 2 (Indonesia, 2014) | Offhand Reviews·

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