Friday, August 2, 2013


The standard-issue movie-critic superlatives—“riveting,” “stunning”—certainly apply to The Act of Killing. The trouble is that none of them seem adequate. This is one of the most astounding and challenging documentaries I’ve ever seen, and I’m not ready, after one viewing, to offer more than a few initial thoughts on it.

The title is a grim joke. The film is about murder, but it’s also about the re-enactment—the astonishingly willing re-enactment—of murder by the perpetrators. The focus is on a few jovial middle-aged guys, most notably a certain Anwar Congo, who back in 1965, in the wake of the Indonesian Revolution, killed countless people accused of being Communists on behalf the new regime. Many of these cutthroats were small-potatoes gangsters who came to be regarded as national heroes through their association with the founding of the paramilitary party Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth). Anwar Congo, a North Sumatran, may have personally killed as many as a thousand people.

This is no typical historical chronicle of a human rights outrage, however. The director, the American Joshua Oppenheimer, uses little in the way of archival photos or footage—maybe none, if memory serves—and I don’t think the names Sukarno or Suharto are ever mentioned. The film takes place very much in the present, in which Anwar and others act out their murders, with no trace of embarrassment and no evident fear of consequence, for Oppenheimer’s camera. These aren’t casual re-enactments, either—they’re staged vignettes, in the style of the gangster pictures these guys love.

Among the many discomforts which The Act of Killing visits on us is one that particularly hits home for those of us in the movie critic and movie buff communities who have long insisted that violence in films has no causal relation to real-life violence. It becomes a good deal harder to be confident of that position after listening to Oppenheimer’s subjects cheerfully discuss the inspiration for their crimes coming from Marlon Brando or Al Pacino movies. It also left me wondering if movies were what allowed these men to dissociate from what they were doing, to see it as unreal.

The Act of Killing is, in a sense, a difficult movie to like, since some of the participants, who play the victims in the re-enactments, are clearly terrified—including some children. It’s disingenuous, after Oppenheimer has filmed children in these potentially traumatic psychodramas, to hear him object from behind the camera when Anwar wants to watch footage from the film with his grandsons.

The result of this viewing is fateful. The last scene of The Act of Killing, which shows Anwar’s reaction when he revisits the scene of his crimes, is, I think, among the most horrifying, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping couple of minutes I've seen in any movie ever. While the movie would still be a unique and shocking expose without it, this scene takes it to the level of Shakespearean tragedy.

To discuss The Smurfs 2 after The Act of Killing seems almost obscene. But the sequel to the 2011 kid movie starring the little blue gnomes created in the ‘50s by the Belgian comic artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford opens this weekend, and while it’s no classic, like its predecessor it isn’t without a self-mocking wit. In the first film the Smurfs had an adventure in Manhattan; in The Smurfs 2, in a dazzlingly innovative twist, they have an adventure in Paris.

Also like its predecessor, with whom it shares the director Raja Gosnell, Smurfs 2 offers a pretty funny performance by Hank Azaria as the villainous wizard Gargamel. Stranded in our world at the end of the previous film, Gargamel has become a success as a stage magician in the City of Light, and has also created two non-blue quasi-Smurfs, Vexy and Hackus. Through a dimensional portal, the sorcerer abducts Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry) in order to steal her “Smurf Essence,” with which he can turn his tiny homunculi blue and use them to infiltrate Smurf Village.

The Smurfs 2 was the last film of the great Jonathan Winters, who passed on in April, and to whom it’s dedicated. He provided the kindly voice of Papa Smurf, and he got to intone the movie’s moral: That it doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is who you choose to be. A platitude, maybe, but some platitudes are better than others, and this one struck me as better than average.

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