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'The Act of Killing' has a repellant film conceit

'Killing' has members of Indonesian death squads, responsible for the deaths of millions, act out their murders, and the result is that the criminals get to boast about their deeds.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / July 26, 2013

A musical reenactment scene from Drafthouse Films' documentary, The Act of Killing.'

Drafthouse Films

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In the documentary “The Act of Killing,” gangsters from the Indonesian death squads, who began their massacres in 1965 and claimed more than 2 million lives over the next year, are encouraged to act out their murders in the guise of a movie staged by the film’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer.

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Far from remorseful, these men, celebrated to this day as heroes, crow about their tortures, demonstrating for us their preferred ways of killing in mock-ups drawing on everything from “Scarface” to Carmen Miranda musicals. The effect is intended to be ghastly – which it certainly is – but I was equally repelled by this film’s conceit. Oppenheimer allows murderous thugs free rein to preen their atrocities, and then fobs it all off as some kind of exalted art thing. This is more than an aesthetic crime; it’s a moral crime. Grade: D (Unrated.)

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