Anti-Heroes Embodied:  The Act of Killing

We love the bad guys. Scarface. Tony Soprano. Vic Mackey. Walter White. The Anti-hero is king in the world of TV and Film, especially of late. It’s probably a fantasy fulfillment, at least to some extent. We love to watch that unacceptable part of us get unleashed, just temporarily. We can barely imagine what would happen if the bad guy was unleashed permanently. What if his killing was legalized, even state-sponsored?

Without stating it, that is the subject of the documentary The Act of Killing by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. A long time ago in a land far away from our Western “sensibility,” in the country of Indonesia, there were death squads. In the 1960’s, they killed Communists. They killed those accused of being Communists. They did it mercilessly. They did it with the backing of many groups including the US. Imagine if Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s started squads to exterminate everyone accused, rather than have the House Un-American Activities Committee to try them?

In Indonesia in the 1960’s there were no trials, and over a million people were murdered. The perpetrators were never tried. They now run the government. They’re proud of what they did. And they proudly call themselves “gangsters.”

Oppenheimer approached the heads of the former death squads, many of whom are now political leaders in the country, with the offer to have them re-enact the death squads in any way they choose. We follow them, as viewers, as if they’re the protagonists.  Now I have hypothesized about fictional anti-heroes and how we can empathize with them.  The Act of Killing layers a fascinating portrayal of a group of gangsters re-enacting their horrific acts proudly, with little sense of the basic moral code of the rest of the world. In their minds they are the heroes. What unfolds is a revealing portrait of mass murderers, and the rationale that goes into their creation and maintenance.

Now in their 60’s and 70’s, these men show no remorse for their acts.  The exception is the focus of the documentary: Anwar Congo.  He is celebrated by his cohort of gangsters, but hints at regret.  He has nightmares of those he killed, but he doesn’t understand why.  Nor do his colleagues.  We watch Mr. Congo with the vague inkling that he might be more moral than the rest.  He teaches his grandchildren to be nice to a duck, and apologize to it after they’ve hurt it.  For almost 50 years he has held the title of hero in this world, and never allowed regret to fully rise up.  In a world celebrating gangsters, regret might be viewed as weakness.

These leaders have shaped a narrative where they equate “gangster” with “free man,” (they state this definition publicly), and have sold the public in Indonesia on this twisted definition. As if being free means being able to kill without consequence. We (Americans) helped to form this narrative.  In this part of the world they still believe themselves as heroes, the champions of their land, free to take and do what they want.  Even their portrayal of the afterlife for their victims is glorified, as if the killing is justified.


When they retold the history leading up to the murders, Anwar Congo  describes how he watched American movies of the 50’s and 60’s, including the celebration of gangsters. This doesn’t serve our usual rationalization in the US that TV violence doesn’t cause real violence. In this case, it at least inspired it, though may not have caused it.

There is a discussion between the main focus of the doc (Anwar Congo) and his friend/associate. They are both former heads of the death squads. In many respects they both appear without remorse, without perspective on the atrocities they’ve committed. Anwar Congo, while holding the party line that this is an act of pride, confides in his friend that he continues to have nightmares to this day. His friend recommends he go see a psychiatrist. But that would mean he’s crazy. So of course he wouldn’t go to see a psychiatrist.

In a world without the presence of morality, the one individual who has regret leaking through in his dreams must be crazy. It would be useful for him to see someone to talk about it, particularly someone who might recognize the cultural insanity that allows a group to murder their own people and justify it based on politics. History has never validated such acts, despite what the perpetrators rationalize for themselves in the moment that they’re doing good.

And yet in this society of Indonesia, few have awoken from the delusion. They keep their conscience in check by fear alone. Perpetuating a message of “freedom” through violence, as if being free means being able to act with impunity, these war mongerers have created an environment that reinforces this false belief system.

Sitting in the theater, the silence among the audience is astounding. The villains got away with it. There’s little karma apparent in a world where millions can be murdered and governments do nothing. So we all watch with an impotent sorrow. Horrible acts with no resolution. The dead stay dead. The criminals stay free.

Eventually we see a small change in Mr. Congo.  After decades of holding back the reality of his actions, he finally experiences it when he chooses to portray a victim in the re-enactment.  He can’t stand it, from the choking to the threatening.  The final transformation occurs when he watches the film of himself as the victim, and a transformation seems to take place.  For the first time in his life he considers the possibility that he really made people suffer.  Somehow he kept that locked away.

Following his realization, we watch an extended scene of him retching, dry heaving. He has swallowed propaganda his whole life, and only now, in his 70’s, is he able to try to vomit it out.  But nothing comes. Our Anti-hero cannot get it out him.

As a doctor and psychiatrist, the film reveals the humans behind the terrible acts.  They are people that did terrible acts.  Many just seem unfortunate, misguided by the false idealization of violence and power as empowering.  We could construct a context to their origins and explain these horrible acts, perhaps informed by the work of Philip Zimbardo, where we understand that these men were young at the time, in a period of social upheaval.  They came from poverty, and saw a chance to seize power.  Their society may have stripped away the identity of the victims as people.  That may lessen the reality of the individual though.

As a storyteller this reveals to me that the Anti-hero needs some bit of grounding to be sympathetic. Some lines can’t be crossed, some acts aren’t forgivable.  His colleagues seem unforgivable, as they have no regret.  Even Mr. Congo strains a connection to the audience.

In the end the  film holds a mirror up to the celebration of violence, reminding us of the division of fiction and reality, and challenging our usual internal emotional disconnect when we watch violence.  It’s a haunting view of our shadow selves.

See more of this film at:

Anti-Heroes Embodied: The Act of Killing
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Paul Puri

Dr. Puri is a board certified psychiatrist, in private practice in Los Angeles. He practices multiple forms of psychotherapy, including hypnosis, in addition to managing medications. He attended medical school at University of Rochester, and specialty training at University of California, San Diego. He is currently on the Vol Clinical Faculty at UCLA. In his non-clinical time he writes TV pilots, and designs iPhone apps.