The Act of Killing / Only God Forgives
Watch Instantly: The Act of Killing (2012, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Awards season is upon us! We have already survived The Golden Globes, The Critic’s Choice Awards, and the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, but the handwringing and complaining about nominations has only just begun, as we head towards the main event: The Oscars. With this in mind, my selection this week is one of the nominations for Best Documentary Feature. It is also a movie that most people probably didn’t get to see in theaters, and honestly, I was particularly grateful for the ability to pause The Act of Killing when I needed a break. It certainly doesn’t go easy on either its subjects or its viewers, but it is important (for lack of a better word) in its examination of the relationship between government-sanctioned violence and the creation of narratives, as well as a striking commentary on art and trauma.
The documentary follows Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, gangsters who had worked on the Death Squads in the wake of the 1965 military coup d’etat in Indonesia. Though both men have freely admitted to killing and torturing thousands of ethnic Chinese locals under the pretense of eradicating communism from the country, neither have been arrested or punished in any way, and in fact seem to be treated as royalty. They are asked to make a film about their history, and the documentary that results is made up of an examination of the scenes that they construct, as well as a closer look into the ways the men personally relate to their past. These are complemented by extended scenes of meta-commentary by Congo and Zulkadry—they discuss the ways that the scenes are constructed and acted, the relationship between history and truth, and they watch the completed scenes and discuss the emotional impact of both the recreation and the viewing.
In many ways, this film has to be seen to be believed. The versions of history that Congo in particular constructs into a hero narrative are both garishly absurd on the one hand, and utterly terrifying on the other. Some scenes are played out like American gangster films and noir (and the men frequently compare themselves to the ‘heroes’ of these films) complete with blue lighting, sparsely furnished rooms, and fedoras. Others look like musical numbers, where women adorned in fluorescent pink gowns dance on a pier that extends from the mouth of a giant fish, swaying like flamingoes against the backdrop of the ocean. But the pastiche and the dreamlike fantasies are made even more unreal by the stark realism of a large action scene that isn’t revealed until the last half-hour of the film—I’d hate to do too much to prepare you for it, because it is an emotional wallop after an hour and a half of an already exhausting examination.
While these filmed pieces are so utterly important to both the way that these men are relating to their past—Congo readily admits to being both haunted by and proud of the things he has done, while Zulkadry feels no remorse and speaks cogently about how he believes that what he did was right and how his is not the first history to rework narratives to fit with a government’s needs—it is the commentary about the relationship between narrative and history that is so gut-punchingly honest. While these narratives are being forged around us everyday, Congo and Zulkadry openly talk about them to examine and critique the effects that each choice will have on the story they want to tell, rather than pretend that they don’t exist. It is not an easy film to watch, but is all the more important for that. It is affecting, and terrifying, and strangely beautiful all at the same time, and while I’m typically at odds with many of the Academy voters, I’d be shocked if this didn’t take home the award this spring.
Avoid Instantly: Only God Forgives (2013, dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)
I’m going to give you this “Avoid” with the understanding that A) I’m typically a total sucker for gorgeous visuals—I can be bought pretty easily with a rich color palette and some artful framing B) I have a probably troubling affinity for stylized violence and C) I quite liked Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) despite its myriad flaws and I loved 2008’s Bronson. With all of those things in mind, this should be right up my alley. And honestly, I think if you feel the same way I do about those things then you could probably watch this with the sound off and some music playing on your headphones, and you might enjoy it. It is a seriously pretty film, and astoundingly creative with the depictions of violence. But there is no impetus for this violence (and maybe it is my own shortcoming that I feel that this is a requirement?) other than a weak-sauce revenge narrative, and the story moves from one gorgeously rendered set piece to another only connected by some act of bodily harm. It is unrelenting. And while Kristen Scott Thomas is giving it her all, chewing her way through each crimson-flooded room, Ryan Gosling looks like he is suppressing a fart every time we are supposed to think he is serious, or upset, or angry—or maybe he is really constipated and I have just misunderstood his character’s motivation. And don’t even get me started on Orientalizing or the ways that women are depicted here. Just…no. Don’t bother. Go watch Bronson, it is still streaming, and Tom Hardy is a force of nature.