Grandfatherly Anwar Congo, a former smalltime hood bearing a strange resemblance to Nelson Mandela and a penchant for colorful suits, doesn't appear the sort of man who would ruthlessly slaughter hundreds, but then, who does? Watch him cha-cha in the alley where he killed with impunity. Watch him gleefully instruct re-enactors during torture scenes. Watch him sway, peacefully, under a waterfall as he is presented with a medal by the "ghost" of one of his victims.
Welcome to Indonesia, where government-backed gangsters "exterminated" between a few hundred thousand and three million citizens during the 1960s in an alleged communist purge and still walk as "free men" (a phrase on which the Indonesian word for gangster, "preman," is based). While filming labor disputes in Indonesia with collaborator Christine Cynn, director Joshua Oppenheimer discovered a cultural anomaly: a ceaseless procession of killers who recounted their brutal deeds with no shame and very little prompting, all while enjoying an almost celebrity-level status. Asked to recount his history however he likes, Congo, a self-styled "Hollywood gangster" and Oppenheimer's 41st interviewee, suggested they create a film. What follows are some of the most uncanny, surreal, and haunting moments in recent cinema. To quote one of the subjects: "War crimes are defined by the winner. I'm a winner. So I can make my own definition."
It's fitting that The Act of Killing is being released by Draft House Films, the distribution arm associated with Alamo Draft House Theaters which traditionally restricts its output to films from the more extreme ends of the spectrum both high (Kim Ki-Duk's Pieta) and low-brow (the zany Miami Connection). This film does violence, both existentially and viscerally. That Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the biggest stuntmen in the documentary game, signed on as executive producers after the film's completion is not a surprise, as The Act is as shocking, and as humane, as any film either of the two have created.
Oppenheimer, who openly asks questions of his subject but never appears in the film, is reluctant to draw conclusions, which may ruffle the feathers of some, but the pronouncements of these killers in their own words is more self-incriminating than any paroxysm of high-handed moralism. Ultimately, there's something almost unseemly about watching the unravelling of such a sweet old codger, until you remember that this is the same man who dispatched many of his own neighbors with piano wire. If you spend the majority of the film's entire runtime your mouth agape, blinking in disbelief, it's safe to say you've found the point. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Opera Plaza.
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Elysium - Matt Damon plays a latino mechanic in 2154 AD LA determined to gain entry to an orbital space station full of one-percenters in Neill Blomkamp's even more broadly allegorical follow up to District 9. Rotten Tomatoes: 71%. Balboa, others.
Kid-Thing - The Austin-based Zellner Brothers deliver an off-kilter, coming-of-age story about a surly, neglected ten-year-old who discovers a woman trapped at the bottom of a well (maybe). Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Roxie.
Lovelace - Local directing pair Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) retell the contested life of Linda Boreman (Linda Lovelace) with the help of plenty of celebs. Rotten Tomatoes: 56%. Metreon.
Prince Avalanche - David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) reimagines a sparse 2011 Icelandic odd-couple comedy with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in the lead roles. Rotten Tomatoes: 78%. Opera Plaza.
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