The Act of Killing (2013) Review

I rarely review documentaries and there’s a very good reason for that. I don’t watch that many documentaries. It takes either a great doc or a topic I’m very interested in to get me to engage in a documentary and those tend to be rare. However, since 4 out of the 5 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature are on Netflix, I thought I’d give them a go. First up is The Act of Killing, a debut film for director Joshua Oppenheimer.

The Act of Killing documents the making of a film about the 1960s hunt for Communists in Indonesia, but what’s intriguing is that it’s made by the gangsters who tortured and killed said Communists. Our main subject is Anwar Congo, a man who undergoes shocking personal growth concerning the atrocities he’s committed as he reenacts them for the film. Thats not all to this film as in the background we see the truth behind the corrupt government, ignorant and afraid populace, and the paramilitary groups that rule the streets.

Let me start off by saying that this is probably the most important documentary to come out this year in terms of its subject matter. It’s a topic not previously sensationalized by the media like The Square, a look at something we already had inklings about like Dirty Wars, and it’s definitely not a small film like Cutie and the Boxer (Keep in mind I haven’t seen these yet, these are just broad statements based on trailers/plot summaries). It provides a shocking look into a topic we in the West know little about and it shows it with honesty and with the consent of the subjects. They offer up this info very willingly and their image is like an afterthought, but the image they want is very much the truth of what they are. It’s a brilliant examination of crimes both past and present and how one society can be so fucked over by itself.

On the other hand… this is really slow. It’s very slow for the purposes of letting it’s images sink in, but for me at least the themes and ideas were very basic and didn’t need the considerable time given to them. What really dragged the film down from a story perspective is the plight of the subjects and the making of their film. Watching these blundering fools stumble through filmmaking just isn’t that interesting to watch and only occasionally are important monologues with interesting stories placed over them. These people just didn’t engage me as interesting subjects. Anwar’s growth as a person was still amazing to watch and especially towards the end of the movie do we get a real resolution and feeling of accomplishment, but the whole “second act” is a drag to watch. For me at least.

I would be absolutely fine with this winning Best Documentary, but I think it’s appeal to a mainstream audience is limited. Despite the paradox, I must conceit that you should absolutely watch this movie, even though you won’t really enjoy it. It’s a shocking examination of cruelty and self-proclaimed sadism in the real world. This isn’t a horror movie, or a mob movie, this is real life and I think everyone should see this to understand the kind of dark things that are actually out there. As stated before The Act of Killing is on Netflix Instant.

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