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Genocide, the Reboot

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Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers of The Act of Killing, and it’s easy to see what appealed to them about Oppenheimer’s self-described “documentary of the imagination.” All three are impatient with surfaces. Surfaces lie. In pursuit of his killers’ inner world, Oppenheimer goes hog wild. Framing sequences are big production numbers featuring a fat man named Herman in a dress (he looks like Divine) watching beautiful dancing girls emerge from the mouth of a giant fish. Everyone dances at the end to the song “Born Free.” But by then I think these men are starting to realize that they’re not the heroes of The Act of Killing. After the (lame) epiphany he has while watching himself being pretend-­tortured, Anwar puts on a mustard-­colored suit and wanders around the rooftop where he’d personally killed tens of people. He talks, then retches. Then he talks some more and retches some more. It’s a grindingly ugly sound, but he can’t bring anything up—no catharsis for Anwar. Or his country. The Indonesians who helped make the film all go in the credits by the name Anonymous. Unlike the venerated war criminals, they can’t afford to be seen playacting.

Rufus Norris’s debut film, Broken, is a fractured, tonally scrambled British coming-of-age movie with flashes of greatness and an intensely felt performance by a young actress named Eloise Laurence. She plays a motherless seventh-grader called Skunk who lives on a North London cul-de-sac that comes to seem like the portal of hell. Daniel Clay, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, reportedly began with elements of To Kill a Mockingbird: Skunk for Scout, a mentally impaired neighbor named Rick (Robert Emms) with a Boo Radley vibe, and a lawyer father (Tim Roth) who’s a model of fairness and decency in an unjust society. But Clay removed the race element and went with the notion of brokenness as the upsetting new normal.

Skunk’s home is broken. Her live-in housekeeper (Faye Daveney) has a boyfriend (Cillian Murphy) who won’t commit. Her thuggish neighbor (Rory Kinnear) has a bevy of delinquent daughters and no wife. The children play in a wrecking yard amid the broken bits of cars and boats; it’s in one such carcass that a fatherless boy (Rory Girvan) asks Skunk if he can kiss her. “All right,” she says. “But not a splasher. No swirly tongues.”

In outline, the film—which begins brutally, with a false accusation of rape, and ends with a surge of gothic madness—is schematic. Moment to moment, it’s anything but. It’s as if the narrative were going one way and the director and his heroine another, refusing to let the insanity, injustice, and death lessen their natural buoyancy and lyricism. This schizoid tone works well enough to make you forgive the times it doesn’t and also the overly fancy syntax. Everything between Laurence and Roth (as good as ever in a no-showboat role) feels like the apotheosis of father-daughter love: She’s demanding, exasperating, and has him in her thrall. Watching these two characters gives you hope that some things can’t be broken.

The Act of Killing
Directed by Josh Oppenheimer.
Drafthouse Films. NR.

Broken
Directed by Rufus Norris.
Film Movement. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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