If you’re observant enough, you realise five minutes in to Amores Perros that there was no way Iñárritu could have got convincing performances out of dogs being terrified, angry and hurt like they did without them being really terrified, angry or hurt. That’s enough reason to turn a movie off, and I found the same thing in The Act of Killing. Although it’s hardly ever the case in cinema, sometimes we’re complicit just by watching.
I couldn’t watch self-admitted murders recreate their crimes in the style of Hollywood thrillers with a clear conscience. It’s not clear in the first half hour what kind of performance art was behind the concept, and it may have been artistically sound – even inspired, as everyone seems to think.
But even though every filmmaker worth his salt will tell you they aren’t there to judge, there’s a line, and we all have to judge where morals call for it. The only thing this movie should have been about was these ridiculously-dressed old men being rounded up and locked in prison.
For the half hour I watched the film, a snow-haired former Indonesian soldier seems to really enjoy himself describing how he collected a group of Papuans in a dingy room and systematically hacked them all up with a machete. He and some cohort are then dressed up in the style of 1930 Hollywood gangsters, preparing to recreate some of the more inventive killings they committed.
Here’s the thing; cinema is the best medium to tell us a lot of these stories, and it’s clear this was a creative choice to put a human face on monsters, but if a psychopath abducted your son or daughter from school, took them home and sexually molested them, how would you feel if someone asked them for a tap dance version of what they did?
There might have been some judgment cast in the later stages of the film, and there might have been some deeper comment about how Hollywood begat or informed on the kind of violence that occurred (but it’s hard to believe 1960s Indonesia was terribly influenced by Hollywood). If so they came too late. There are no two ways about it – this is a movie that (at least in the first 30 minutes) glorifies murderers in the most offensive fashion.