The Act of Killing is without question one of the most horrifying films I've ever seen. No actual blood is shed on screen, but murder, torture and barbaric wrongdoing are imprinted on almost every frame.
Joshua Oppenheimer's film might have been a straightforward documentary about the 1965 military coup in Indonesia and the genocide that followed: up to a million citizens – intellectuals, farmers, unionists – were slaughtered on suspicion of being "communist".
Certain gangsters hired by the army to do the job are still alive today, and it is Oppenheimer's daring scheme to invite them to recreate their bloody deeds as a quasi-movie. "It was like we were killing... happily," says Anwar Congo, star of the film and a death-squad leader whose victims numbered at least 1,000.
He explains, coolly, how his method changed from stabbing to strangling, because it didn't involve so much mess. The extraordinary thing about him and his fellow killers is their present-day status as celebrities, applauded on TV chatshows and saluted by paramilitary outfit Pancasila Youth. This is a country in which "gangster" means "free man", and where the mobsters of The Godfather and Scarface are openly embraced as role models. We are watching nothing less than a hoodlum state in action.
Oppenheimer allows his subjects all the rope they need as they laugh and boast about their murderous past; some are seen wandering through markets extorting shopkeepers, or overheard at dinner gloating over the prowess of a prostitute.
Only Congo, medicating himself on drink and drugs, shows any trace of a conscience. At one point, face covered in fake blood while playing a suspect under torture, he insists to the director that he now knows how his real-life victims must have felt. But he seems not to understand when Oppenheimer explains the difference: Congo's victims knew they were going to die.
The shock of the final scene must be left unspoken; suffice to say its impact exceeds even the nightmarish queasiness which this brilliant and horrible film has striven to contain.