Tim here. As Team Experience’s representative lover of The Act of Killing above all other movies in 2013 (if “love” is the right word for such an bleak portrait of humanity’s worst side), it naturally falls to me to trumpet the Good News that one of the year’s best-reviewed films that you probably haven’t had a chance to see yet is now on DVD and Blu-Ray. At just the right moment, too, in advance of the Oscar nomination that I’m honestly not expecting it to receive; the Documentary branch hasn’t been in the business of making me that happy, and it’s not fair to expect otherwise.
It’s not the kind of film that readily lends itself to breathless statements of the “you HAVE to see this!” sort. For it is, after all, a documentary about mass political killings, one of the unlikeliest subjects in the world to produce a frolicsome entertainment that everyone will enjoy. That being said, you probably do have to see this. It is unlike any other cinematic analysis of its subject that I’ve ever heard of, let alone seen, with the filmmakers (those being director Joshua Oppenheimer, co-director Christine Cynn, and another co-director remaining anonymous for reasons of personal safety) going straight to the men who headed the anti-Communist death squads in 1965 and ’66 (regarded as heroes in Indonesia), and offering them a chance to make their own cinematic interpretations of their past deeds.
It’s for this reason that The Act of Killing ends up being much more than just a film about a terrible event from half a century ago. With the (entirely unrepentant) killers given a chance to relive and re-stage their history, Oppenheimer’s film becomes a treatise on identity and memory, and how pop culture shapes and is shaped by societies – the killers speak with fondness of the old Hollywood movies that would inspire them in their deeds, and which they now reproduce in terrifyingly distorted forms as physical embodiments of their memories. With The Wolf of Wall Street currently serving as the focal point in the latest of many redundant “does it or doesn’t it endorse immorality?” debates, it’s useful to have a film come along to clarify exactly what those stakes are: whatever the filmmakers intend, people will be excited by what they see, and they will copy it. The Act of Killing presents a particularly stark and brutal incarnation of that truth, with the killers’ own movies serving to describe the mindset and worldview of people who would think to use movies as a blueprint for killing, and then brag about it.
It’s complex, unnerving stuff, and if you haven’t had a chance to give the movie a spin, it’s the ideal time to do it. And that brings us to that aforementioned DVD, which is a fairly comprehensive package for anybody who wants to get a better handle on the motivations behind making the film or the moral argument it’s presenting “Eight hours of content!” rhapsodizes the packaging, which is a bit of a dodge: most of those hours are taken up with two different cuts of the film, the 122-minute version that originally played in the United States, and Oppenheimer’s 166-minute director’s cut. Most of the content of the shorter version is also present in the longer cut (sometimes re-ordered), which itself merely offers more room for breathing and reflection, rather than any radical new insights. This is a little bit disappointing (one tends to hope that directors’ extended versions are always vast, transformative visions of movies), and in terms of “preferring” one cut over the other, I can’t really say anything more definitive than “watch the longest version you have time for”. Certainly the extra 44 minutes don’t just make it 44 minutes more horrifying and depressing, which had been my fear.
The rest of the features are all strong, though none of them really answer the main criticism that has been leveled at the film, which is that it does a poor job of establishing the context of mid-‘60s Indonesia. Indeed, one of the features (an interview with executive producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog) spends a little bit of time explaining why that context isn’t what the film is about. Still, there’s a booklet included, in which Morris writes at length about the history, and is probably the most factually gratifying of all the special features, if we can even call something that’s not part of the disc a “special feature”.Outside that, there’s a smattering of deleted scenes that, though individually powerful, certainly don’t add anything vitally new to either cut, and a series of interviews Oppenheimer did with Democracy Now, in which he explains the project’s genesis and motivations (and, to be fair, gives some of that historical background). It feels a little too much like marketing, honestly – highbrow NPR-listener marketing, but still – but it’s good to have it for completeness’s sake (there’s also a commentary/interview between Oppenheimer and Herzog on the director’s cut; I will admit to not having had the time to listen to it).
Like all great art, though, the film’s main argument is itself, and at either length, The Act of Killing is a potent statement. As we prepare to finish cleaning off the scraps of the 2013 film year in preparation for the movies of 2014 to start in earnest, it’s a perfectly-timed reminder of just how good the cinema last year reached, beyond the all the obvious names in the hunt for awards.