By Daniel Barnes
One of the great, unique, often intangible and sometimes scary potentials of the film medium is the way that cinematic artifice can achieve something more profound than mere fact. We usually talk about realism in the sense of grimy settings and handheld cameras, but the manufactured beauty of set-bound stylists like Hitchcock, Almodovar, Max Ophuls, and Vincente Minnelli supersedes a mundane depiction of reality and captures a more transcendent truth.
That’s why I would argue that Brian De Palma’s deranged rock-and-roll fantasy The Phantom of the Paradise is a more accurate depiction of the music industry than La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story, or any other musical biopic. In the same sense, John Frankenheimer’s surrealist political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which connects the veins of political corruption to a toxic heart of psychological deviance, is a more realistic look at politics than grim, stiff-necked dramas like Lincoln and The Ides of March.
Among so many other things, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (co-directed by Christine Cynn and “Anonymous” – a number of key credits here are listed as Anonymous) displays that power of film to transcend reality, even when it’s aiming to pervert it. In the early 1970s, Indonesian death squads often run by street gangsters killed over one million innocent people under the guise of eradicating Communism. Forty years later, not only have they gone un-persecuted for their crimes, they have achieved great wealth and influence because of them, and now seek to memorialize their “heroics” on film.
The main figure is Anwar Congo, a bright-eyed, snowy-haired senior citizen and former “movie theater gangster”/executioner whose great legacy was to create a more efficient method of slaughtering Communists. Early in the film, he visits the scene of his murders, gleefully demonstrating his bloodless method of strangling people, and even spontaneously breaking into dance on his victims’ graves. He intends to make a film glorifying his war crimes as heroic deeds, but after experiencing the naked self-discovery of performance, he revisits the same murder scene and can’t stop violently retching.
This artifice-as-honesty paradox is at the heart of the best sequence in The Act of Killing. A neighbor of Congo, pulled in for a minor role in the film, tells the killers about discovering and burying his father’s corpse in the wake of the death squads. Knowing that the cameras are recording him talk about his own life, he is self-conscious, and smilingly assures the killers that he only intends to offer research, not criticism. When the cameras roll and that same neighbor assumes the role of a tortured “Communist”, the intensity of his performance grasps at something more genuine and personal than simple storytelling can convey.
An upset victim at the Academy Awards to the more voter bloc-friendly documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing is the film that I was most disappointed I could not watch in time for my Top 10 of 2013 list. Right now, it would join documentaries Stories We Tell and Room 237 in my top 5, along with Upstream Color and Inside Llewyn Davis. You can check out my updated rankings of every 2013 film I’ve seen here.