"The Act of Killing," directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

"The Act of Killing," directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. Credit: Handout

Meet Anwar Congo, the star, so to speak, of Joshua Oppenheimer's astounding documentary "The Act of Killing." Congo, a snowy-haired senior with an easygoing smile, lives in Medan, Indonesia, where he spent his youth watching American movies and drinking with friends. During the mid-1960s, he also helped torture and murder hundreds of people.

Congo is not in prison. He's a folk hero in Indonesia, which still proudly remembers its purge of 1 million accused communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese after a military coup in 1965. Congo and his cronies, who pitched in with local stranglings, mutilations and beheadings, are gangsters -- not an insult but an honorific that Indonesians have somehow translated into "free men."

Even viewers inured to the horrors of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Berlin will be flabbergasted by the moral insanity that Oppenheimer finds in Indonesia. Congo and his mates fondly recall watching the latest American musical and then, like the smiling goons in "A Clockwork Orange," snuffing out lives. "We would kill in a happy way," Congo says, doing a little Gene Kelly shuffle. His favorite method, the garrote, was inspired by a film.

Things might seem surreal enough at this point, but Oppenheimer (a protege of experimental filmmaker Du?an Makavejev) goes a step further. He offers to help his subjects re-enact their atrocities Hollywood-style, with costumes, sets, makeup and gore. Their reaction is joyous, and they love wearing Cagney-era fedoras and suits while torturing some quivering "victim." (Herman, a morbidly obese thug, curiously takes the female roles.) When news of the production spreads, a young talk-show host dutifully gushes, "This will be a beautiful movie."

But something else happens. Congo keeps choosing to play the victims. Between shoots, he broods at his old killing spot, a tiled terrace he once flooded with blood. In his dreams, he is haunted by a head he severed. Before our eyes, Congo's benumbed conscience begins to waken.

"The Act of Killing" works on so many levels -- psychodrama, horror movie, Orwellian nightmare, Poe story -- that sifting through your reactions could take days. (The film's one flaw is a slightly long running time.) What's certain is that you have never seen anything like it.

PLOT A documentary about several Indonesian mass murderers who make a Hollywood-style film re-enacting their atrocities. (Unrated; staged gore, crude language, adult themes)


BOTTOM LINE A mind-boggling look at collective insanity that works as documentary, social experiment and real-life horror story. Guaranteed to stay with you for days.

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