Lawrence Toppman

Penetrating ‘Look of Silence’ will shake you

An Indonesian optometrist quietly confronts government officials who conducted mass killings in the 1960s in the documentary “The Look of Silence.”
An Indonesian optometrist quietly confronts government officials who conducted mass killings in the 1960s in the documentary “The Look of Silence.”

Forget ghosts, aliens, slashers, zombies or any other deadly creatures you’ll encounter through mass media this year. The most horrific beings will be elderly Indonesian chaps in “The Look of Silence,” who cheerfully recall murdering people without trials or even criminal charges 50 years ago.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer got a 2012 Oscar nomination for “The Act of Killing,” in which Indonesian death-squad leaders re-enacted crimes in Hollywood-style scenarios. Now he abandons showmanship for one personal story: Rural optometrist Adi seeks the truth about his elder brother’s death in 1965.

His mother wants no trouble and believes victims will avenge themselves in the afterlife. His frail father says he remembers nothing. Adi’s wife wonders what the point of an informal investigation can be, long after the government has proved it will never charge the guilty. Presumably, the unspoken point of this quest and the film is to prevent such events from happening again.

So Adi goes forward, politely asking questions of people who are mostly happy to answer. Yes, they hacked up communists and alleged communists with machetes. Yes, they threw half-dead people into rivers. Yes, they drank victims’ blood. (“It’s salty and sweet,” says one.) They’ll even explain the most efficient way to slay someone, in a manner too gruesome to relate here.

Suddenly you realize Adi is fitting one of the slaughterers for eyeglasses. He has to make a living, and the ill will of respected local leaders means trouble. And what have they to fear? They’re still in power, and these massacres have been accepted as a part of history that’s better forgotten. Only one warns Adi that, if he continues to pry, events might repeat themselves – with Adi at the wrong end of the machete, we assume.

The film moves slowly, yet at exactly the right pace. Long holds on faces let us ponder what’s said and look for visual clues that it may be a lie. Adi’s uncle, a guard who rounded up detainees for execution, alleges he didn’t know what happened after prisoners left him. That’s a remarkable claim, especially when one was his nephew, and his eyes suggest he knew.

Oppenheimer proves documentaries needn’t be visually flat, even when they’re mostly reportage from interviews. Indonesia looks lush and inviting, now that the rivers no longer run red and the breeze doesn’t waft the stench of fresh corpses. All ugliness has safely been relegated to the past, we’re told. Whether we believe that is another matter.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Look of Silence’


DIRECTOR: Joshua Oppenheimer.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes.

RATING: PG-13 (thematic material involving disturbing graphic descriptions of atrocities and inhumanity).