‘The Look of Silence’ goes where ‘The Act of Killing’ couldn’t

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The critically acclaimed precursor to “The Look of Silence,” “The Act of Killing,” was criticized for its ethical problems. In making its subjects, those who led the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66, reenact their crimes, was it glorifying them as well? By the end, Anwar and Adi are in a very different moral place from where they started, and there’s no glory in what they realize about themselves.

“The Look of Silence,” then, makes itself essential. The perpetrators have spoken and told their stories, and now one victim’s brother, an anonymous middle-aged man, faces them and looks for answers. The result is every bit as uncomfortable as “The Act of Killing” with no reenactments and little dramatic flair. If there’s any doubt that Oppenheimer could not do justice to the victims as he did the murderers, let “The Look of Silence” ease that.

Despite a few mentions, Oppenheimer removes himself from the equation and lets the interviewer, Anonymous, do the talking. It’s a good thing, too; Anonymous asks questions only someone from the culture could think to ask, enriching most encounters he has, especially with the death squad leaders and members. He’s reckoning with a volatile history, and the people who created it are just as volatile. But, unlike some of his interviewees, he keeps a cool head and hones in on question-dodging.

Those moments are the documentary’s highlights, when Anonymous tries to get a straight answer. It doesn’t happen often, it might not happen at all, but it doesn’t need to. “The Look of Silence” finds answers in the quiet moments. How faces change when they’re faced with their crimes. Of course, interviewees replace clear answers with flimsy justifications. Part of Oppenheimer’s goal, it seems, is to show how violence and cruelty linger with anyone in their radius.

The most heartbreaking part of the movie is Anonymous’ mother. Two years before he was born, his brother, Ramli, was murdered in the communist purge. At the time of filming, she was 82 years old taking care of her infirm husband who has since forgotten both her, Ramli, and Anonymous. While the structure overall is more lax than “The Act of Killing,” sometimes to its detriment, Ramli’s murder is a tight throughline to latch onto. That’s a bittersweet comfort, though, as Anonymous never knew his brother and, despite finding out how he died, neither he nor his mother get respite from the grief.

The parts for a powerful movie are here, but they don’t quite gel. “The Act of Killing” was more surreal than its companion, but it still had a sense of progression. There was something it moved towards. “The Look of Silence” doesn’t have that momentum. It waxes and wanes, feeling more expressionistic than narrative, which works when it counts. Even when it doesn’t, “The Look of Silence” personalizes the violence of the killings in a way its predecessor couldn’t. The only question is: are you willing to look?