Subject and approach continue to diverge to troubling effect in The Look of Silence, director Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the omnipresent The Act of Killing. That film focused its entire attention on the perpetrators of Indonesia’s violent mid-’60s purge of alleged communists, openly encouraging these now-aging killers to relive their bloody memories via bizarre, uniquely disturbing re-enactments. Perhaps mindful of its predecessor’s one-sided view, The Look of Silence sets its sights on the victims, sending a pointedly unnamed optometrist on a quest to confront the people responsible for the savage murder of his older brother, all of whom are still at large today. Yet while this shift in perspective does at least render the by-now familiar combination of intensity and outrage less thorny, the same unpleasant aftertaste persists, a queasy mix of subdued sensationalism and discreet manipulation that distracts from, rather than aids, a true understanding of the matter at hand.
Our anonymous protagonist’s undertaking begins obtrusively and slowly gathers pace as the film continues, the initial scenes that show his elderly parents’ recollections, his two young children, and the beautiful rural surroundings gradually giving way to the highly charged interviews he conducts with the various people who had a hand in his brother’s demise. The degree of responsibility is kept in intelligent flux here, with those confronted including one of the actual killers, political leaders of different ranks, and a mere prison guard, with welcome additional perspectives emerging due to the fact the interviewees are often flanked by their families. Further context is provided by recurring scenes in which the protagonist watches what is likely unused material from The Act of Killing on a television screen: encounters with various perpetrators whose unwavering bloodlust is only matched by their lack of remorse.
It’s these scenes that make the problematic nature of Oppenheimer’s approach most apparent, with the camera appearing almost glued to the optometrist’s face as he watches the progressively more harrowing footage, eager for no one swallow, no small frown, no nervous eye movement to go unseen. The crescendo is finally reached when he’s made to watch two elderly men enthusiastically describe how they killed his brother in grisly detail. With the previous film and most of this one already having repeatedly plumbed the depths of depravity with which such killings were carried out, it’s hard to understand why the protagonist needs to be placed in such a manifestly wrenching position, aside from a salacious desire to have his reaction on camera.
The same whiff of tawdriness pervades many of the interviews too, the lingering close-ups on stricken faces or sudden camera movements to capture any stray emotion giving the impression that catching the right reaction is everything. There are also numerous scenes so concerned with making a particular point they feel entirely staged, such as when the optometrist has a conversation with his son about what they learn at school about the killings (not the truth) or when he discusses with his wife what the consequences of his actions might be (potentially lethal ones). At such moments, The Look of Silence feels akin to giving cheap investigative journalism a dishonestly sober makeover, where getting the shot you need for your pre-formulated thesis is ultimately far more important than how you go about doing so.
This over-directness of purpose would perhaps be less grating if said thesis were formulated more explicitly, yet Oppenheimer’s own position is never made clear, the director remaining little more than a shadowy presence behind the camera, only referred to sporadically or asked occasionally for brief clarification. This is particularly troublesome when it comes to the relationship between Oppenheimer and his protagonist. Who’s the driving force behind this search for answers? Who’s deciding on what questions are asked to whom? And where does personal motivation stop and documentary investigation begin? As it is, this opaqueness means it’s impossible to ascertain whether Oppenheimer’s protagonist is an active part of the process, a filmmaker surrogate with the added bonus of a victim perspective, or somewhere in between, a contentious gray area that stands in stark contrast to the black and white often otherwise in evidence.
If The Look of Silence still remains a gripping, vital, consequential documentary, it’s in spite of its approach rather than because of it. Perhaps there are some subjects just too raw, too topical, too incendiary to be marred by how they’re treated. Yet in its less strident moments, the film also hints at what a different approach might look like: a conversation in which the horrors emerge seemingly unbidden, an account of violence uninterested in the sinews of the face telling it, a newsreel whose obliqueness re-engages rather than bludgeons. After all, whoever said that the creative treatment of actuality requires a hammer?