It is not uncommon to read a review where the author declares whatever film they’re reviewing to be a bona fide masterpiece. But it should be uncommon. The problem is, it’s a designation all-too-often given to things that people simply like. Let us not confuse the things we enjoy with those things that actually advance the art form. We can enjoy mindless entertainment and buy cinematic pap on DVD to pop in when we’re hanging out with friends, because it’s fine to like something that’s not a masterpiece. Really, it is. So I personally use the term sparingly and apply it only to those pictures that are so masterfully crafted that they refuse to fade from my consciousness, pictures that indeed advance the art form and force us to ask major questions about life, the universe, or the nature of humanity.
It’s a label I do not dole out indiscriminately. Yet I can say without reservation that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing (2012), is indeed a masterpiece. More than that, it stands as one of the most emotionally-stirring works of nonfiction filmmaking ever produced. Oppenheimer invites us to stare directly into the face of death as he follows a group of Indonesian death squad leaders who sought to eradicate all ethnic Chinese and Communists from Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. The film’s central figure, Anwar Congo, is in fact rumored to have personally killed some 1,000 people, and without the use of firearms.
Oppenheimer masterfully captures Anwar and his gang discussing their crimes against humanity with terrifying nonchalance. Oppenheimer masterfully obliges these monsters address him and his crew with total comfort and candor, and therein allows us access to their most disturbing thoughts and emotions. For example, Anwar’s friend urges him to see a neurologist for his “weak mind” after Anwar confesses to having nightmares about the hundreds upon hundreds of people he’s killed. Another man laughs as he tells Anwar and his pals about having to bury his father, who was kidnapped and murdered by the death squads, on the side of the road “like a goat.” And another soldier describes raping the 14-year-old Communist girls of the villages they slaughtered as “heaven-on-Earth.”
And the way in which Oppenheimer arrives at some of these confessions is shocking in and of itself. Oppenheimer asked Anwar and his gang to put together some scenes reenacting their murders and interrogations, and rather than haphazardly ad-libbing some scenes at a dining room table or putting together brief sketches with demonstrations of their methodology, the men set about making a movie with abstract musical set pieces and dream sequences. They reenact the burning of villages, interrogations, and murders in a variety of filmic styles. The interrogations evoke film noir and the musical sequences adopt colorful visuals not unlike Jodorovsky. Yet even in this exploration of their crimes, the men fail to fully recognize how wrong they were and have been all along.
The Act of Killing is a powerful and maddening experience that forces us to confront a constant barrage of often conflicting emotions. It will leave you emotionally drained and sobbing. And the memory of it will likely never, ever leave you. Because in it Oppenheimer shows us perhaps the most horrifying thing of all: that face of evil is a face just like any other. This makes The Act of Killing a masterpiece.
The Act of Killing, executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, comes to Blu-ray and DVD on January 7, 2014 from Drafthouse Films in conjunction with Cinedigm. The release features two versions of the film: the 122-minute Theatrical Cut and the 166-minute Director’s Cut. By way of special features, the release also includes a 45-minute interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer on Democracy Now!, “VICE Presents: Executive Producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris on The Act of Killing,” deleted scenes, trailers, a 40-page booklet featuring an essay by Executive Producer Errol Morris, and commentary with Oppenheimer and Herzog.