“I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade” – Werner Herzog
Regardless of how many films you watch, The Act of Killing is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and a third collaborator, who like the majority of the crew remain anonymous for their own safety, unite as a directorial trio to deliver a challenging and outrageously innovative documentary about the Indonesian genocide in 1965.
Over the years countless films have explored shocking periods of history in a traditional narrative form, and on the surface The Act of Killing might lure an audience into believing it is the traditional documentary that was initially intended. However, as the filmmakers began their interviews they uncovered a sickening truth; half a decade on from one of the most brutal moments in history the anti-communist death squad leaders have escaped punishment and are even celebrated as heroes.
In keeping with the conventional narrative style (but after a hyper-stylised glimpse of what will arrive later) the film begins with interviews with the former death squad leaders who speak with shocking openness and arrogance when describing the murders they and many others committed. But it’s when two of the most notorious killers admit that they are fans of Hollywood cinema and reveal that they often pictured themselves as Pacino-esque heroes while they conducted the executions that the filmmakers understand their unique opportunity. After hearing this, Oppenheimer and his crew change tack and challenge the former death squad leaders to re-enact their mass killings in whichever cinematic form they wish. It’s this outrageous innovation that separates The Act of Killing from anything that has come before and results in such a bizarre and frightening film experience.
In addition to its stylistic alteration to the documentary format, it also presents the psyche of killers in a way few films have achieved previously. By exposing the murderers’ humanity through depictions of their nightmares and psychological torment the filmmakers are able to convince the audience to become invested in them despite their past sins.
The result is without question one of the most uncomfortable cinematic experiences of all-time. It has a unique ability to draw you in with its surreal quality, but simultaneously distance you with harrowing reminders of what these men did. The Act of Killing is a morbidly fascinating story told through its perplexing subjects and one that is as powerful as it is unsettling.
The Act of Killing is available to Sky customers on Sky Atlantic via On Demand