The most horrifying movie scene you will watch this year begins with a giant waterfall cascading into a lush green gorge. A Muzak cover of “Born Free” plays as smiling young women in matching satin gowns sway in the fall’s mist. At the center of it all, two old Indonesian men—one squeezed into a ruffled, sequined turquoise evening gown—raise their hands to the sky. In another context, it might be a cultural curiosity, or even make for a good laugh. In The Act of Killing
, it’s truly stomach churning. Some backstory: In 1965, a violent military coup in Indonesia led to the rise of Suharto, who would go on to lead the country in a repressive dictatorship for the next 31 years. His reign kicked off with a five-month anti-communist purge, which saw some 500,000 people killed. In the North Sumatra capital of Merdan, the job of slaughtering accused communists was given to a man named Anwar Congo. Today, as The Act of Killing
picks up, Congo is a local hero. American director Joshua Oppenheimer's masterstroke is to ask Congo and his cronies to make a film of their own, re-enacting their glory days from the death squad. This is how we end up panning across a scenic waterfall, with Congo and his right-hand man swaying serenely in the breeze. Two disheveled “communists” appear, remove their wire nooses, put a gold medal around Congo’s neck, and thank him for executing them. Like visiting Auschwitz or the Killing Fields, sitting through The Act of Killing
is one of those wholly distressing experiences to which we submit ourselves in an effort to comprehend the great atrocities of humanity, and memorialize the lives left in their wake.