The Act of Killing

Movie review by
Alistair Lawrence, Common Sense Media
The Act of Killing Movie Poster Image
Indonesian genocide docu has simulated violence, language.
  • NR
  • 2014
  • 117 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Details of the military coup and subsequent 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia. The movie includes some historical facts, but it mostly consists of anecdotal evidence and recollections from gangsters and death squad leaders who show a distinct lack of remorse.

Positive Role Models

None. Gangsters and leaders of death squads recreate the murders they committed. A male participant makes disrespectful comments about females' appearances. Gangsters extort protection money from business owners.


Interview subjects try to recruit participants to "act out" the killings they committed during wartime. They also demonstrate the different types of killing they committed, with details about how efficient each one was. People -- including young children -- are shown to be upset to the point of tears when the murderers recreate and act out their killings. Simulated strangulation, throat slitting, and decapitation. Fake blood from fake wounds.


Couple lie on a bed together, partially clothed and resting. Anecdotal story about oral and group sex. Adults make sexual comments about teenagers.


Language used includes "f--k," "p---y," and "s--t." Someone is described as looking like a "whore."


Interview subjects talk about being gangsters, not having "real jobs," and wanting to kill for money. Some vanity.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Interview subjects smoke and drink alcohol socially and in moderation. One talks about getting drunk, smoking marijuana, and taking ecstasy.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Act of Killing is a documentary about the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 and contains graphic descriptions and re-enactments of some of the brutality that occurred. The documentary centers around former death squad leader Anwar Congo and former gangster and paramilitary leader Herman Koto. Neither show any remorse for committing mass murder and boastfully talk about killing for money. Congo and Koto accept the filmmakers' invitation to re-enact their killings in the style of scenes from different movie genres. These murders are re-enacted using different sets, props, costumes, and make-up that is sometimes bloody and gory. Using prosthetic special effects, the participants pretend to beat and strangle people. There is also staged throat slitting and decapitation using prosthetics and fake blood. Participants tell stories about a woman performing oral sex on a number of men, and make sexist comments about women's appearances both to their faces and behind their backs. There is also use of derogatory sexual language such as "whore" and "p---y," along with "f--k" and "s--t." Smoking cigarettes features throughout and alcohol is drunk in moderation by adults at social gatherings. Congo references getting drunk, smoking marijuana, and taking ecstasy. The heartless manner in which the interviewees discuss and re-enact their killings make this a difficult watch -- especially for younger teens -- about a bleak period in Indonesia's history. There is a follow-up documentary to this film called The Look of Silence.

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What's the story?

THE ACT OF KILLING is a documentary about the mass killings in Indonesia during its military coup in the 1960s. The documentary interviews former death squad leaders and current paramilitary figureheads about the people they killed, how they did it, and its impact on them.

Is it any good?

Constantly blurring the line between fact and fiction, this film won critical plaudits and an Oscar nomination or its grim retelling of a dark episode in Indonesian history. Essentially a war crimes trial in reverse, The Act of Killing's decision to give a platform to unrepentant mass murderers to re-enact their killings will likely divide viewers based on whether they find these stylized "scenes" compelling or pointless.

Its central figures, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, embody the banality of evil as they repeatedly discuss the same atrocious acts over and over again. Maybe this is a comment by the directors about how something stops being shocking if we are exposed to it enough, but as a cinematic spectacle it makes for a documentary that occasionally piques the interest but is often quite tedious. Viewers will decide for themselves whether its climax is revelatory or just another stage managed set piece in a movie that seems content to exist in the moment of the spectacle it's created.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in The Act of Killing. Did it surprise you that the interviewees had no regrets about killing so many people? How did that make you feel? Did the re-enacting of the violence feel any less brutal than if the real atrocities had been shown on screen?

  • Discuss some of the language used in the documentary. How do the interviewees talk about their victims? Do they seem remorseful?

  • What did you know about this period of history? Would you like to know more? Why do you think some historical events are better known than others?

  • Discuss what the filmmakers were trying to do by using movie genres, professional sets, props, and make-up techniques in the documentary. How did these techniques compare to other documentaries you might have seen?

Movie details

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