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Staging Violence in Film: Only God Forgives an Act of Killing

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In film, what can be more vile and inhuman than re-enacting a government coup that killed more than one million people in less than a year? An empty, ultra-violent revenge film that offers no character insight behind any punches thrown, puncture wounds or fired gunshots.

This past weekend The Act of Killing and Only God Forgives opened in select cities.

The Act of Killing documents a genocide partly enforced by former "movie gangsters" (petty ticket enforcers at Indonesian cinema houses) who were recruited in 1965 to become executioners, subsequently became heroes and are now figureheads in a government approved paramilitary operation that has only grown in power and numbers.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer deftly uses re-enactments with a few killers who were willing to be subjects in his documentary precisely because it is a film. He interviews them, films their current life and is granted access to the official vice presidential visit to their paramilitary rallies. Oppenheimer also asks them to not only re-enact some of their killings in the style of American gangster, western and musical films that they loved, but also to act out the roles of their victims. This process reveals a lot about the men: who of his subjects stands firm in their belief that they were just, who is concerned about what it will look like to the outside world and who is plagued by demons created from their actions.

The Act of Killing not only exposes Indonesia's scrubbed history, and current PR struggle to avoid sympathy, but also how American films directly influenced how the perpetrators viewed themselves and their actions.

Only God Forgives is a pile of bodies.

Danish Director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a career of placing men in violence. Their character motives for instigating violence range from the theatrical masculinity of wielding physical power (Bronson), battles for land (Valhalla Rising), gaining power and money to absolve and provide (the Pusher trilogy) and protecting a woman and her child (Drive). In Only God Forgives Refn gives us absolutely nothing. It's the sort of film that could wash over and perhaps ease the minds of some of the men in The Act of Killing: it is cold, heartless, almost entirely devoid of decisions and there are absolutely no repercussions for very public torture.

There are, of course, numerous differences between these two films (fiction vs non fiction, atmosphere, etc). However, watching them in the same week made me peer into that cannibalistic cavern of men in ultraviolent cinema. I would not have thought that the narrative of a documentary about paramilitaristic individuals that killed over a million suspected communists and ethnic Chinese would have proved itself to be more aware of humanity (while re-enacting crimes against humanity!) than a "slick" gangster film starring a worldwide heartthrob.

For his two American films Refn has used Ryan Gosling as a silent, anti-hero archetype who has to decide when to be a violent enforcer.

In cinema, the silent "hero" needs identifiers for the viewer to fill in what is unspoken. Clint Eastwood's "The Man With No Name" played with the basic archetype of the cowboy: the stranger who came into town, grizzled, weary and with his own defined code of when to act. An empty landscape, lonely travel and -- most importantly -- an already established idea through decades of the cinematic cowboy can allow the viewer to fill in his character. Film noir worked this way, as well. The more films that existed of boozy private detectives created more silent anti-heroes because previous filmmakers had already created enough of these recognizable men that they all blend into a history without having to film it.

Refn utilized this in Drive. Gosling played a stunt driver and worked as a mechanic. He's surrounded by speed, wrenches and lube. We know that his past might be clouded by previous regrettable acts because he's rigorously alone and involved in an intense profession that could only best be learned through fleeing. Does it matter if he's a hero? No. But the credit song tells us that through protecting a child and her mother with his bootstomps, hammer and knife that he's indeed become "a real human being and a real hero."

Only God Forgives gives us nothing other than Gosling is in Thailand, he looks good in a suit and he has a reprehensible brother (Tom Burke) and mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). God coasts on the Gosling meme: his fan created "hey girl" dreaminess, his wet eyes from The Notebook and his attempt at good in The Place Beyond the Pines.

We do know that Gosling's brother, Billy, is reprehensible. Billy beats the owner of a brothel for not offering his virginal daughter to him and then kills a prostitute; in juxtaposition Gosling spends the night with a prostitute but only watches from a chair as she touches herself, fully clothed. Then he invites her to meet his wretch of a mother. That's the extent of character building. There is no reason for Gosling to avenge his brother's murder (in fact the murderer has already been killed), but bodies are beaten to a pulp and hacked to bits. It's truly an awful experience of a movie (though well lit by cinematographer Larry Smith and with a great electronic score by Cliff Martinez). Only God forgives? I don't. Refn is a deft filmmaker, but this is a daft exercise of violence for the sake of staging violence.

On the flip side The Act of Killing is an amazing feat in its staging and analyzing of violence and how film fits into that discussion. We meet various former executioners from the killings of 1965, but we mostly follow Anwar Congo who, it's told, might have individually killed the most people in the genocide.

When we first meet Congo he's excited to be a part of a movie. He made money in the 1960s by enforcing ticket prices for local cinemas. He was recruited by a violent group that wanted to overthrow the government and rid the country of communists. Congo was opposed to supposed communist movie theater owners who put a ban on American and capitalist films because those were the films that made him the most money when shaking down patrons.

The Act of Killing is incredibly disturbing. It exposes our own desensitized viewing of violence in films. The first 30 minutes are disturbing because of how frank and open Congo is as he gleefully tells us that he'd watch an Elvis Presley film and then be happy when he went out afterward to kill suspected communists and go out dancing afterward. Then, through staging re-enactments, it felt like a reprieve due the cinematic form. Here, the film became a different sort of disturbing because the camera provides a distance from his monstrous individual words.

Then, unknowingly, something very interesting happens. It's the re-enactments during the filmmaking experience that make Congo look into his demons.

At the start of the film, Congo excitedly shows Oppenheimer a method of killing numerous people without all the blood: strangling with a wire, which he learned from watching American films. After he's involved in more re-enactments, including playing some of his own victims, his entire posture, facial expressions and outlook begins to shift.

The film closes similar to how it opens: Congo visiting a site where he murdered numerous individuals. Except at the start -- where he had a smile and was happy to be in a movie -- by the end he can't even stand and speak. His sits, disgusted, his body powerless as it reacts with repeated deep, guttural convulsions that cannot be acted; through a process of filming a movie that Congo thought might stabilize their justness, he is instead forced to confront it, alone, violently vomiting at his feet.