A fascinating and very grim (and yet remarkably colorful) act of cinematic insanity, The Act Of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker, is a movie unlike any other. It is a work of fierce originality and stark contrasts and a picture that will, if nothing else, provide plenty of food for thought.
In the mid-1960's Indonesia was the setting of some seriously disturbing political upheaval. In 1965, then President Sukarno was taken out of power by Suharto, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were recruited to lead ‘death squads' that would purge the country of communist sympathizers. As Suharto rose to power and the Communist Party (the PKI) was literally eliminated from the country, up to half a million people were killed. The killings began in Jakarta and soon spread across the country and things quickly spiraled out of control. History has whitewashed much of this, these atrocities are not covered n Indonesian schools and the west of the era more or less turned a blind eye to all of this, Cold War tactics being what they were at the time. And yet, what of these men, the ones responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths? Many of them are not only still alive and well but now hold positions of power and influence in the Indonesia of the modern day.
What does this have to do with the movie? Well, enter Oppenheimer and company. They tracked down Anwar Congo, now a high ranking military official, and convinced him to get together some of his associates, the ones involved in the killings, to re-enact some of the more famous massacres that they had a hand in as dramatic films. The intent was to have the men responsible express their feelings about all of this through film and the end result is part documentary, part fictional filmmaking and entirely bizarre. The movie, early on at least, does show us how Oppenheimer's team collaborated with Anwar and his affiliates but as it progresses, the death squad leaders start to use different Hollywood genres and filmmaking tactics to bring their recreations to life.
Shot between 2005 and 2011 on location in Indonesia, The Act Of Killing is every bit as powerful and as unsettling as the critical acclaim lauded on the movie during its theatrical run would have you believe. The filmmakers are clever enough not to paint their subjects as monsters but instead tread quite carefully in this regard, letting the reenactments basically speak for themselves and letting the human side of those involved with the killings resonate with the audience. The movie is short on historical context but it was never intended to be a documentary about the killings themselves, but rather an exploration of the mindset of those responsible for them. Hence, we wind up with musical numbers, dance scenes, film noir style settings, western movie clichés and all sorts of other completely inappropriate Hollywood clichés being used by the movie's subjects to communicate their thoughts on the matter. Of course, the reenactments, such as they are, happen to be corny and riddled with the worst sort of staging and production values you'd expect from novice filmmakers more suited to corrupt politics than artistic expression. Yet somehow, it fits.
One of the more powerful moments in the movie happens towards the end (pseudo-spoilers ahead) when Anwar plays one of his own victims. The gentle looking white haired man starts off by having his two grandsons come and sit on his lap, noting to them how said it is that grandpa is getting his head bashed in. One finds it amusing, though looks uncomfortable, the other stares fairly blankly at it, potentially horrified by what he sees. They're shortly ushered away. At this point, he can't do it. He finds it too intense and too unsettling to put himself in that position, at which point Oppenheimer brazenly points out that what he put people through in real life had to have been much worse. After asking if he has sinned, Anwar breaks into tears, noting that he doesn't want the memories the past to catch up with him. End of pseudo-spoilers. What follows this scene paints the man in a very different light, a very human light, but it does not wash away the sins of his past even if he insists that he ‘had to do it.'
As all of this plays out, we learn that most of these guys are still running the country and not only that, they're often celebrated as national heroes. Many people seem to live in fear of them but won't speak up, there would likely be horrible repercussions for doing so (hence that ‘Anonymous' credit mentioned earlier). The government is corrupt, the system has failed its population in immeasurable ways and throughout all of this, ignorance remains bliss and obliviousness reigns supreme. The Act Of Killing is horrifying, repulsive, fantastic and at times even hilarious but so too is it an eye-opening look into the evil inherent in society and the levels of atrocity to which humanity is capable of stooping.
It should also be noted that this Blu-ray release of The Act Of Killing contains, on Disc One, the original one hundred and twenty-two minute long theatrical cut of the movie and, on Disc Two, a longer one hundred and sixty-six minute long Director's Cut of the movie. The director's cut shows more of the making of the ‘film within a film,' meaning we get more footage of the Indonesians working on their movie. Additionally there's some added material that sheds some light on how propaganda films were used in the 1960s to spread a ‘red panic' about the country, essentially letting the newer government justify its actions by sanctioning the death squads. Not wanting to go into spoiler territory, there other extended bits and pieces in here too, notably the finale in which Anwar's reaction is more drawn out and involved.
The Act Of Killing arrives on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition widescreen framed at 1.78.1. The video quality here is quite, you'll really notice how impressive the color reproduction is in certain scenes where large swatches of extras and bit part players parade about in garish costumes. This is evident right from the opening scene in which some costumed women dance in front of a lush jungle waterfall. As this was shot on digital video and on a modest budget there are some source related quirks, you'll notice some compression in a few scenes and some softness here and there, though much of the softness almost seems intentional, as if to give the image an appropriately dream like texture. Outdoor daylight scenes fare the best, some of the indoor scenes are just a little bit murky and some of the night time scenes show some crush but again, this seems to be inherent in the source material. If nothing else, this seems to be a perfectly accurate representation of the footage that was shot and edited by Oppenheimer and his collaborators. Some of the archival clips used are a bit worse for wear but you have to expect that. Skin tones usually look pretty good, detail is good for what this is, and if this isn't going to be something you'd use to demo your HDTV, it is a good high definition presentation of a feature shot under some unusual circumstances.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is in Indonesian with forced English subtitles. The subtitles are white and pretty crisp and easy to read. There were no obvious typos noticed during playback. Much of the movie is made up of scenes of dialogue, these sound pretty accurate, even if they're not particularly exciting. The dialogue sounds natural enough, it has good presence. The ‘reenactment scenes' sometimes have more going on, there's some great use of music here and some sound effects that let the mix play with some directional movement to nice effect. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced throughout.
The extras on disc one, which includes the theatrical cut of the movie, start out with a forty-five minute long video interview with Oppenheimer on Democracy Now! conducted by Amy Goodman. The piece starts off with a bit of historical context and a clip from the trailer before bringing Oppenheimer on for the actual interview. Oppenheimer provides some context for the movie and how it came to be based on the events that took place in 1965, the culture of movies in Indonesia, and what it was like meeting and interacting with the people in the movie. Oppenheimer notes that ‘every perpetrator I met was open, every perpetrator was boastful' and notes that they were only too happy to show off the locations and mementos off their atrocities, nothing that when these men, who are all getting older, pass away their legacies will be lost. There are some clips from the feature used to illustrate various points as well as some archival footage and photographs. It's quite an eye opening piece and a very informative segment well worth watching. In many ways, it's just as unsettling as the feature itself.
We also get a featurette entitled VICE Presents: Herzog And Morris On The Act Of Killing that runs about twelve minutes. This is, as it sounds, an interview with the two executive producers of the feature in which they talk about the ‘inherent madness' in the movie, in the premise itself. Herzog talks about how he heard about the movie and became involved in it, how he first met Oppenheimer for the first time and saw excerpts from the movie and how it affected him. They also talk about the surrealism, the documentary aspect, the power that the movie has and how this movie, as it should, has many mysteries. It's quite a worthwhile piece at it allows these two veteran filmmakers, with a lot of experience working as documentarians, to express their admiration and appreciation for Oppenheimer's unique picture.
Rounding out the extras on disc one are some Deleted Scenes, four in total: Anwar Made Up As A Victim, Anwar And Adi Complain About Corruption, A Deputy Minister Owes His Position To Pancasila Youth, and The Newspaper Publisher On Universal Humanism. These run eleven and a half minutes in total and can be watched individually or by way of a ‘play all' option. We also get a trailer for the feature and trailers for other Drafthouse Releasing properties (Bullhead, The Ambassador, Wake In Fright and Pieta).
The only extra on the second disc is an excellent audio commentary with director Joshua Oppenheimer and executive producer Werner Herzog. This is a great commentary, Herzog and Oppenheimer have an obvious affection for one another and their collective works, and they do a great job of explaining the imagery used throughout the movie and the history of the project. Herzog notes how impressed he is with the powerful images used in the opening of the movie, while Oppenheimer discusses how and why he used the rushes of the musical number in that scene. Herzog's admiration for the movie is obvious in pretty much every utterance as they go on to discuss what the expectations were versus the reality of meeting the men who handled these mass killings, meeting the Pancasila Youth members and seeing them interact with famous Indonesian politicians and pop stars, and how genuinely frightening it is to see some of these men smiling in the most inappropriate of times with seemingly no idea what they're actually portraying. Oppenheimer talks about how he got everyone to sign releases, including those extorted in the market (he paid them back what was stolen from them!), the theme of power that comes out of victory contrasting with the nightmare of the reality behind these events and the importance of maintaining at a conceptual distance. Oppenheimer notes how he really wanted to show the scene in which they reenact the torture of a man using his actual grandson in his place, how and why someone might have second thoughts there, and the motivation expressed by some of the participants involved in the picture. It's a truly fascinating commentary, there no dead air whatsoever and the two participants play off of one another's enthusiasm and fascination for the project in amazing ways. Take the time to listen to this track, you'll walk away with a new appreciation for the feature and for the filmmakers and what they've accomplished with this movie.
Animated menus and chapter selection are included on both discs and inside the keepcase is not only a download code for a digital copy of the movie but also a forty-page booklet that contains a pretty interesting essay on the feature written by Erol Morris entitled Memories Of Gonzago. These piece provides some welcome background information on the Indonesian massacres and then provides some context as to how and why the world seems to have turned a blind eye and gone on to forget that they ever happened. Both discs fit inside a clear plastic Blu-ray case with reversible cover art. This in turn fits inside a cardboard slipcase.
The Act Of Killing is a movie that defies both convention and expectation, it's a challenging mix of surrealist and more conventional documentary styles that is as fascinating as it is harrowing and disturbing. There's really nothing else out there like it, and Drafthouse Films have rightfully rolled out the red carpet for this. The audio and video look about as good as they probably can but the extras are not only comprehensive but incredibly interesting and informative as well. This is an important film, a horrifying film, and an incredibly well made film. See it. DVD Talk Collector's Series.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.