Atrocity hides beneath a grandfather’s gentle smile in “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable, unnerving documentary portrait of barbarity and its lasting legacies.
Oppenheimer, a Texas-born filmmaker living in Denmark, set out to record survivors of Indonesia’s bloody anti-Communist campaign of 1965-66.
When they proved too fearful (their torturers remain in power), Oppenheimer shifted his attention to the killers themselves.
Now elderly men hailed as national heroes for the extermination of more than a million countrymen, the old death-squad leaders couldn’t have been more welcoming to Oppenheimer’s cameras.
“At first we beat them to death,” boasts Anwar Congo, a former paramilitary leader and the film’s primary subject, “but there was too much blood.” His tidy solution (demonstrated with pride): wire garrotes.
Oppenheimer, in a move of real inspiration, invited Congo and several compadres to make their own movie, recreating vignettes (in any style or genre, from noir to musical) of their murderous pasts.
Congo, a lifelong fan of Hollywood gangsters and Elvis movies, jumped at the chance, fretting only about whether he should dye his gray hair black.
On its surface, then, “The Act of Killing” (executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog) becomes a documentary about the making of Congo’s film, interspersing interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with the surreal, melodramatic and improvised recreations of long-ago murders.
“Humor is a must,” says one of the “actors,” a rotund man who costumes himself in outlandish drag and jokes about raping his victims.
Oppenheimer’s cameras capture unforgettably candid moments (imagine eavesdropping on wrinkled Nazis in truthful reverie).
During rehearsals for an interrogation scene, one of Congo’s actors recalls the real-life abduction and murder of his Chinese stepfather, dissolving into a weird, hysterical laughter as the former executioners sit stony faced.
Even Congo’s facade of indifference begins to crack, as the act of recreating old atrocities resurrects ghosts, stirs nightmares and wracks his body with ungodly retches, a testament to both the power and uselessness of art confronting violence.
“Is it all coming back to me, Josh?” a crying Congo asks the director, the ultimate too-little-too-late. “I don’t want it to.”
“The Act of Killing,” from Drafthouse Films, is playing in New York (select theaters beginning July 26). Rating: ***** (Evans)
The aestheticized brutality that spiffed up “Drive,” the first collaboration between the Danish-born director Nicholas Winding Refn and the dreamy-eyed hunk Ryan Gosling, has been inflated to such demented levels in “Only God Forgives” that the movie becomes that treasured rarity, a genuine camp disaster.
Gone is Gosling’s sweet little half-smile; here no act of violence is so simple as stomping a man’s head in. “Only God Forgives” offers a fastidiously composed torrent of slashing, burning, braining, blinding, stabbing, piercing, clobbering, shooting, amputating and, at a special moment, disemboweling.
Faucets spew blood, a pipe organ wails and scarlet bordello lighting heats up every room in the city of Bangkok.
Vithaya Pansringarm plays a Terminator-like cop who croons karaoke and twirls a Thai sword with the dexterity of a majorette. Kristin Scott Thomas is even better (which, in this context, means even worse) as a gangster momma who loses one of her boys and alights in town to play the goddess of vengeance.
Told that he was killed for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl, she coolly replies, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Refn must have had his, too, and whatever they were, I’m grateful. Ludicrous, awful, irresistible!
“Only God Forgives,” from Radius-TWC, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Seligman)
Ocean City, the New Jersey town battered by Hurricane Sandy, certainly didn’t need the drab, unfunny “Girl Most Likely” invading its shores.
A whiny, charmless Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a once-promising Manhattan playwright forced by circumstance to move back to the ramshackle beachside home of the tacky, casino-loving mom (Annette Bening) she resents.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“The Nanny Diaries”), “Girl” pads the mother-and-child reunion with a houseful of cartoon eccentrics: a simpleton brother (Christopher Fitzgerald) obsessed with crabs, mom’s shady CIA boyfriend (Matt Dillon) and the unlikely Lee, a wannabe singer (Darren Criss) with a Yale degree and (inexplicably) eyes for Imogene.
What Lee sees in the snobby, off-putting Imogene remains as mysterious as what the red-hot Wiig saw in Michelle Morgan’s shabby sub-sitcom script.
“Girl Most Likely,” from Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, is playing across the U.S. Rating: * (Evans)
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York Weekend.