What real-world impact does Hollywood violence have?

In a summer filled with explosively destructive blockbusters, The Act of Killing offers a sobering look at a group of killers directly influenced by Hollywood

"Pacific Rim"
(Image credit: Facebook.com/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/pacificrimmovie" target="_blank">PacificRim</a>)

Violence, destruction, and death are as commonplace in summer blockbusters as flip-flops are at the pool. But still, this summer has seen more cinematic destruction than ever before. Countless cities have been leveled by every manner of threat imaginable, including terrorist attacks in Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Man of Steel; giant seafaring aliens in Pacific Rim; and hordes of hungry zombies in World War Z. We've seen the White House get blown to smithereens in White House Down, and watched the genocide of an entire Indian tribe in The Lone Ranger. And we've even witnessed what an honest-to-God biblical apocalypse might look like in This is the End.

Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Man of Steel have all been called out for evoking 9/11 — and, in the latter's case, for trying to surpass it. Man of Steel's climactic third-act showdown leaves a Manhattan-esque Metropolis in ruins. BuzzFeed even tapped a scientist and longtime disaster expert to estimate the impact of Man of Steel's ending if it had it been New York City instead of the fictional Metropolis. The results are pretty shocking: 129,000 lives lost, 250,000 missing, 1 million injured, and a cleanup cost of $750 billion.

The debate over movie violence stretches back decades, of course. But really: Are blockbusters becoming too violent for their own good — and are audiences already too desensitized for the genre to change?

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Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing — a new documentary that hits theaters in limited release this weekend — may shed some new light on the issue.

The Act of Killing documents a group of Indonesian gangsters who went from movie ticket scalpers to death squad leaders when the country's government was overthrown by the military in 1965. The rebellion army hired them to exterminate any and all suspected communists, and they quickly became mass murderers, taking a remorseless pleasure in killing thousands of people. The film follows gangster Anwar Congo and several of his compatriots as they recount their harrowing crimes, and the country's gleeful celebration of them as war heroes.

But this isn't a typical documentary. Oppenheimer asks his film's subjects to reenact their mass killings in the style of some of their American films — films that gave them specific ideas about how to kill large groups of people more swiftly and effectively. As Congo and his comrades take Oppenheimer on a tour of their old killing haunts, they recount how one of their detention centers was directly across the street from a movie theater, which they'd often attend before their killings, humming the tunes from the films they'd just seen. In one particularly haunting scene, as Congo recalls how he got the ideas for his brutal killing methods, he says, "I always watched gangster films, where they always kill with wire. It's faster with wire, because when you pull the wire hard, the victim can't grab it. He can't because it cuts in.”

It's easy to distance yourself from violence through the filter of cinema, where stylized CGI and special effects can either heighten or lessen the brutal reality of violence by making it inherently theatrical. But when life begins to imitate art, the line between what's acceptable to show on screen and what isn't gets blurrier.

If anything, films are intended to offer escape from the horrors and tragedies of everyday life, and filmmakers who depict brutal violence obviously don't intend to encourage such crimes. Blockbusters present their violence cartoonishly, as a heightened, totally implausible reflection of reality. And when films eschew blockbuster conventions and do portray violent acts in a realistic fashion — like this summer's powerful indie drama Fruitvale Station — those acts, just as they do in real life, have devastating consequences.

There are signs that Hollywood is starting to reexamine itself. Recently, Jim Carrey — who stars in the hyper-violent comic book adaptation Kick-Ass 2, which hits theaters next month — came out on Twitter to disassociate himself from the film. "I did Kick-Ass a month before Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence. Recent events have caused a change in heart," he said.

It is, of course, ridiculous to suggest that Hollywood eschew violence altogether. But whatever the answer, The Act of Killing offers proof that Hollywood doesn't exist in a vacuum. When seemingly out-there films like Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel begin to mimic real life, it's worth raising the question of whether or not those real-life horrors are being use responsibly. The Act of Killing is a sobering reminder that that's a question filmmakers need to continue to ask themselves.

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Matt is an arts journalist and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written about film, music, and pop culture for publications including Washington City Paper, The American Interest, Slant Magazine, DCist, and others. He is a member of the Washington D.C. Film Critics Association.