The Indonesian government has responded negatively to the film. Its presidential spokesman on foreign affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, claimed that the film is misleading with respect to its portrayal of Indonesia.
The film focuses on the perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66 in the present day; ostensibly towards the communist community where almost a million people were killed. When Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the President of Indonesia, following the failed coup of the 30 September Movement in 1965, the gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in Medan (North Sumatra) were promoted from selling black market movie theatre tickets to leading the most powerful death squad in North Sumatra. They also extorted money from the ethnic Chinese as the price for keeping their lives. Anwar is said to have personally killed 1,000 people.
Today, Anwar is revered by the right wing of a paramilitary organization, Pemuda Pancasila, that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers who are openly involved in corruption, election rigging and clearing people from their land for developers.
Invited by Oppenheimer, Anwar recounts his experiences killing for the cameras, and makes scenes depicting their memories and feelings about the killings. The scenes are produced in the style of their favorite films: gangster, western, and musical. Various aspects of Anwar and his friends' filmmaking process are shown, but as they begin to dramatize Anwar's own experiences, the fiction scenes begin to take over the film's form. Oppenheimer has called the result "a documentary of the imagination".
Some of Anwar's friends state that the killings were wrong, while others worry about the consequences of the story on their public image.
After Anwar plays a victim, he cannot continue. Oppenheimer, from behind the camera, states that it was worse for the victims because they knew they were going to be killed, whereas Anwar was only acting. Anwar then expresses doubts over whether or not he has sinned, tearfully saying he does not want to think about it. He revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place, and retches repeatedly while describing how he had killed people during the genocide. The dancers from the film's theatrical poster are seen before the credits begin to roll.
In 2001, while conducting interviews for their 2003 film The Globalisation Tapes, Oppenheimer and Cynn began delving into the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. After moving up the ranks of those involved with the killings, Oppenheimer's interviews led him to meet Anwar Congo in 2005. The film was shot mostly in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, between 2005 and 2011. After seeing an early preview of The Act of Killing, filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed on as executive producers.
The name "Anonymous" appears 49 times under 27 different crew positions in the credits. These crew members still fear revenge from the death-squad killers.
The Act of Killing received widespread acclaim from critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 96% approval rating with an average rating of 8.7/10 based on 136 reviews. The website's consensus reads, "Raw, terrifying, and painfully difficult to watch, The Act of Killing offers a haunting testament to the edifying, confrontational power of documentary cinema." On Metacritic, the film holds an average score of 89 out of 100, based on 30 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim."
Nick Schager of The Village Voice called it a "masterpiece." Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges called the film "an important exploration of the complex psychology of mass murderers" and wrote that "it is not the demonized, easily digestible caricature of a mass murderer that most disturbs us. It is the human being." Award-winning filmmaker Ruhi Hamid said: "It is the most extraordinary film I have ever seen. It actually turns around what we think of as documentaries. ...an extraordinary record of a horrendous part of Indonesian history."
In some quarters Oppenheimer has been accused of treating his subjects in bad faith. As far as their goal at the beginning was to glorify mass murder, Oppenheimer responds that could never have been his goal, therefore that side of them may have been betrayed. In an interview with The Village Voice, Oppenheimer said: "When I was entrusted by this community of survivors to film these justifications, to film these boastings, I was trying to expose and interrogate the nature of impunity. Boasting about killing was the right material to do that with because it is a symptom of impunity."
Australian National University Professor of Asian history and politics Robert Cribb stated that the film lacks historical context. In reply, Oppenheimer said that "the film is essentially not about what happened in 1965, but rather about a regime in which genocide has, paradoxically, been effaced [yet] celebrated – in order to keep the survivors terrified, the public brainwashed, and the perpetrators able to live with themselves... It never pretends to be an exhaustive account of the events of 1965. It seeks to understand the impact of the killing and terror today, on individuals and institutions."
Bradley Simpson, historian at the University of Connecticut and director of the Indonesia/East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, states the "brilliant Oscar-nominated film" has prompted vigorous debate among Indonesians about the crimes and the need to hold responsible parties accountable, and suggests that it could have a similar effect in the United States, whose own role in the killings "has never officially been acknowledged, much less accounted for, though some of the relevant documents have been made available to the public."
An Indonesian academic, Soe Tjen Marching, analyzed the film in relation to Hannah Arendt's theory of the banality of evil.
The primary subjects in the film, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, have seen the film and neither feels deceived, according to Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer says that upon watching the film Anwar Congo "started to cry...Tearfully, he told me: 'This is the film I expected. It's an honest film, a true film.' He said he was profoundly moved and will always remain loyal to it." Oppenheimer went on to say that in the call with Congo he also became down on himself saying "There is nothing left for me to do in life but to die". Oppenheimer seeing Congo so moved and almost ashamed for what he had done, said this to him. "You're only 70 years old, Anwar. You might live another 25 years. Whatever good you do in those years is not undermined by the awful things in your past." He felt it may have been cliche, but he felt it was honest and all he could manage to say to Congo. A subsequent interview on Al Jazeera's program 101 East revealed that Anwar had misgivings about the film and the negative reaction to it in Indonesia, which was causing problems for him. He confided these concerns directly to Oppenheimer in an apparent Skype conversation displayed within the program.
In 2015, the film was named as one of the top 50 films of the decade so far by The Guardian.
The Act of Killing has been named as one of the best films of 2013 by various critics:1st – Sight & Sound
1st – The Guardian
1st – LA Weekly
1st – Nick Schager, The A.V. Club
2nd – Mark Kermode, The Observer
3rd – David Edelstein, New York
3rd – David Sexton, London Evening Standard
4th – Eric Kohn, Indiewire
4th – People Magazine
7th – Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
7th – A. A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
7th – David Chen, slashfilm.com
8th – Sam Adams, The A.V. Club
8th – Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
8th – Richard Corliss, Time
10th – Time Out London
10th – Devindra Hardawar, slashfilm.com
The Act of Killing was ranked 19th among all documentaries in a 2015 poll by the British Film Institute, as well as the 14th greatest film since 2000 in a 2016 critics' poll by BBC.