Cinema reviews: The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell and more

First, the film beggars belief. Then it sends belief running into the hills, screaming for help and understanding. The Act of Killing is like no movie seen before. It’s a dazzling documentary about the killers responsible for the anti-communist purges in 1960s Indonesia. It gives those killers, or select surviving ones, their own screen time and space. One in particular, Anwar Congo, a spry elderly dandy, at first seems conscienceless, but is later beset, in almost the film’s only twitch of contrition, by retching fits seeming to signal remorse or unease. These happen on the roof terrace where he has re-enacted for us and the film-maker – documentarist and human rights activist Joshua Oppenheimer – his patented method of garrotting victims.

He killed dozens. The total genocide tally was between half a million and two million. Exact counts are hard since anticommunists still rule the country. That provides the film with its uniqueness. The guilty men are free to crow about their crimes, even to replay them, even (bizarrely) to stage scenes of mock self-punishment. Congo’s sidekick/henchman is a large-bellied buffoon who dresses as if for a Mardi Gras – red-and-gold bikinis a speciality – and in one screen playlet, with both men slathered in make-up, impersonates Congo’s interrogator. Elsewhere an effigy of Congo is decapitated before Congo’s bemused yet unoffended gaze. Elsewhere again, Congo, home-viewing on TV a vignette of make-believe brutalisation, calls his grandchildren from bed. “Come and see your grandpa get tortured!”

The film is mind-boggling, psyche-boggling, soul-boggling. Would the Khmer Rouge strut and caper like this if they still ruled Cambodia? We think not. Why? Because, while the first difference between Oppenheimer’s film and, say, Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s 2009 killing fields documentary Enemies of the People (briefly featuring Cambodian executioners consenting to re-enact their deeds) is that many of Indonesia’s power-abusers live on, the second difference is that the southward country’s rulers and executioners can boast – laudably or not – a hypocrisy-free barbarism. Not for them the messiah complex of “Kampuchea” or Maoist China, regimes hiding their atrocities under the squeaky-clean floorboards of a putatively pure, classless Utopia.

Instead Indonesia’s genocide history puts the “antic” into anti-communism. It’s an opera buffa pageant of purgings and their present-day commemoration. In one scene impoverished villagers play-act, with every appearance of willingness, the sacking of their own village. At the end of Oppenheimer’s documentary we watch an opulent, campy musical being shot amid mountains, with everyone wearing filmy frou-frou including Congo. The background music is “Born Free”. Now more than ever is it kitsch to die ... or kitsch to celebrate killing.

Fiction and non-fiction, fact and fantasy, leak into each other this week. Ancestry-digging has become everyday showbiz. Celebrities who have spent half a life not giving a damn where they came from suddenly see publicity, cash, a TV programme – or a documentary feature. In Sarah Polley’s marvellous Stories We Tell, two differences tell. First, Polley is minor-famous, so will be a fresh face for some: a young Canadian actress (The Claim) and till now an unobtrusively applauded director (the Julie Christie-starring Away From Her, about the dark side of memory, Alzheimer’s). Second difference: she knows her family story already.

There is no “Eureka” nonsense or “Ooh fancy that.” Kane-like in its mirrored complexity, flashing in its mischievous irony, the story is a shiny maze which Polley enters knowing exactly where and what her Minotaur is – the secret of her paternal parentage – while spinning for us a thread to follow.

The first character to spellbind is Polley’s late mother, an extrovert, even raucous beauty seen in home-movie snips and a TV clip of her singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. Seems she misbehaved a lot: surrendering her first-marriage kids in a historic custody case and later, after wedding the English actor (Sarah’s notional father) who provides most on-camera reminiscing, having an affair with a film producer. Polley teases us throughout with fiction or stylised non-fiction. In some “home-movie” sequences the family members are played by actors. Dad Michael Polley, in other scenes, reads aloud from a family memoir he wrote mysteriously in the third person. “Michael loved Diane with a love that ... ”

Are we ourselves or constructs of ourselves? Sarah’s interviewed siblings refract the story more. Was mum love-starved? Perhaps. Was Sarah’s biological dad the film producer, or a stage actor during an out-of-town play gig, or ... ? The cross-examination process itself is cross-examined, or seriocomically inflected. “You want the whole story?” says the producer. “I’d better pee first.” Michael, the tale’s true star, a Limey out of his depth in a North American parallel universe, berates Sarah with “What are you, some kind of sadistic interviewer? ... ” There’s a reluctant, half-hidden smile on his face. There would be. Who couldn’t smile, confronted with the inventions of this sly, ludic, mesmerising memory-quest?

Blurred frontier between fiction and reality: part three. In This Is the End Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and other Hollywood brat-packers play themselves. The end of the world comes to LA just as Rogen/Baruchel join a party at Franco’s mansion. Fires; earthquakes; a portal to hell. Since the Bible-predicted Apocalypse has a cousin in the San Andreas Fault, it seems at first just a Richter hiccup. Then the 20-foot Satanic beast appears and panic and inanity move to overdrive. The players flap, mug and pratfall. Then they flap, mug and pratfall some more. The script is an open text: they can bring their own jokes. The audience is still waiting for one when the film closes.

Blurred frontier between fiction and reality: part four. When real sex happens in a fictive story, are we disconcerted because it’s sex or because it’s real? Put it this way: fiction is play-acting, full-on sex, for physical reasons, isn’t. The participants, if male as in the gay drama I Want Your Love, flying here on wings of notoriety after an all-Australia ban, must rise for real to the provided occasions. Hence this film’s ill-conjoined components. A well-meaning ensemble drama about boho San Franciscans sorting their love lives, it never heats its faltering fictive story to the temperature of its unfaltering sex scenes. We remain uncertain if this is art or porn, make-believe or an indie pretext for make-whoopy.

The East
is a zigzagging tale of espionage and sabotage about a terrorist group infiltrated by a young ex-FBI security agent (Brit Marling). Marling wrote it with Zal Batmanglij, her writer-director partner on Sound of My Voice. This is a kindred attention-catcher, good on the quiet madness of cults and creeds.

Despicable Me 2
is like the second helping of over-rich cake pressed on you at a children’s birthday party, when you didn’t want the first. Kids (of all ages) may love it, though, as Steve Carell-voiced Gru, Russian agent with crazy accent, tackles the villains and the St Vitus frenzies of 3D digimation.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.