To say I was eagerly anticipating Louis Theroux’s documentary on the enormous tax dodging scheme called Scientology, since seeing the first trailer, is an understatement. Via his bumbling style – owing some credit to journalist Jon Ronson – Theroux has been able to gain access to groups so far from the beat and track you were almost out in barren desert regions. With this access he has been able to tell the stories of people we would never have heard. I could not wait for My Scientology Movie.
Such is his excellence and distinctiveness in the field that Theroux has become a superstar in his own right. To his credit he has managed to turn this to his advantage in his work and has not lapsed into inanity and laziness.
From a purely entertainment point of view, My Scientology Movie is great fun and extremely engaging. Unfortunately, Theroux’s work has the problem that is having to follow the absolutely stellar documentary film, Going Clear by Alex Gibney. Which more than just articulate a fascinating three act story, was incredibly thorough, informative and really cut to the dark and disturbing heart of the matter.
Theroux’s foray onto the big screen simply comes up short to what has come before. Whether it be on the subject of Scientology or Theroux’s own body of work. It is nowhere close to being as comprehensive on the matter as Gibney was, with Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name to work with as a start point.
Theroux himself attempted to produce something in the style of Robert Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Going for a more surreal and theatrical style. Using actors to recreate various events that happened within the ludicrously secretive church. As an aside, Andrew Perez, the actor who portrays David Miscavige is unsettlingly brilliant in his role. Put him to the front of the casting queue should any director be brave enough to tackle Scientology with a feature film.
Oppenheimer, in his film about the Indonesian genocides, uses the perpetrators themselves to truly understand the motivations and truths behind the horrors of the purges. Theroux’s main problem seems to be utterly unable to work his way into the church, seemingly shut out largely due to his contacts with ex-members or “Suppressive Persons” such as Marty Rathburn.
In many ways this film becomes more about him then the church itself. Rathburn is a rather enigmatic figure. Fiercely critical of the organisation and always eager to advise and help but can be as volatile and elusive as his self-designated adversary Miscavige with dark secrets and guilt of his own.
The theatrical re-enactments are brilliantly bizarre and entertaining with the recreation of Miscavige’s alleged abuses in ‘The Hole’ suitably surreal. However, once again it always feels like it’s just merely nipping at the edges. Theroux never presses on some of the most serious allegations against the church, including suicide, murder and tax dodging.
In the end, the most revealing moment on the organisation itself is created by their own members who start haranguing and harassing Theroux and Rathburn. Here the church only goes to prove the accusations that it’s a paranoid, pernicious cult headed up by a megalomaniac. Unfortunately, this insight is lacking for much of the film and the narrative becomes disjointed because of it, it comes more to resemble a behind the scenes DVD extra.
Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I didn’t enjoy because I really did. It succeeds in being cinematic feel to proceedings and some genuinely funny moments and absorbing sequences. Regrettably though, in the end, the film becomes more a vehicle for Louis Theroux himself rather than the subject and as a result, lacks the substance of his other work.