Louis Theroux won me over many years ago with the show Weird Weekends. In each episode, Theroux embedded himself in a subculture and use his extreme mild-mannered niceness to disarm his subjects. He'd hang out with porn stars, demolition drivers, hypnotists, UFO nuts, survivalists, and even creepy British men in search of Thai brides. This approach would carry forward into Theroux's later BBC specials, which include shows on Jimmy Savile, The Westboro Baptist Church, and meth addicts living in Fresno.
I mention this because I had certain expectations about Louis Theroux doing a movie on the Church of Scientology. My Scientology Movie isn't the usual Theroux piece, but more a trollish making-of with Theroux-isms throughout. I can't help but compare this film to three other high-profile looks at Scientology in recent years that overshadow and yet are in conversation with Theroux's latest piece of practiced naivete: Alex Gubney's Going Clear (2015) and John Sweeney's two Panorama specials, Scientology and Me (2007) and The Secrets of Scientology (2010).
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
My Scientology Movie Director: John Dower Rating: NR Release Date: March 10, 2017
Gibney's documentary--an adaptation of Lawrence Wright's book of the same name--is a top-to-bottom takedown of the entire Church of Scientology, looking at the group's origins via the eccentric L. Ron Hubbard to its current state. Sweeney's Panorama pieces were more upsetting. The first, Scientology and Me, featured Sweeney getting stalked and harassed by high-level members of the Church of Scientology; the follow-up, The Secrets of Scientology, revealed how the Scientology operatives intimidated Sweeney, with the go-ahead coming from Scientology leader David Miscaviage himself.
I mention the above works for their clarity of purpose and strong execution. Theroux's movie is far lighter on substance and information to its detriment, and much more impish by comparison just based on circumstance. He'd originally intended to make a documentary on Scientology and sought full cooperation of the cult. The Church of Scientology declined his request. They no longer allow journalists access to the church, perhaps because of Sweeney's damning work, which revealed just how nuts the organization is at its core.
Undeterred, Theroux makes his own movie about Scientology featuring dramatic recreations and reinterpretations of events. There's an open casting call for people to play David Miscaviage and Tom Cruise, the former played by an alarmingly talented guy named Andrew Perez. For accuracy and insight into his film (and to bait the Church of Scientology), Theroux also contacts Mark Rathbun to help as a consultant. Rathbun was a former high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology, at times a brutal protector and enforcer for the church. He's now an apostate.
My Scientology Movie sort of reminded me of Theorux's 2003 special Louis, Martin & Michael, in which he tried to get an interview with Michael Jackson but instead wound up hanging out with Michael's father and Uri Gellar. By not getting directly to Michael Jackson, Theroux got a great portrait of the strange world that Michael lives in. Similarly, by not working directly with the Church of Scientology, Theroux gets an oblique portrait of Scientology. The film isn't a takedown in the Gibney mode and it's nowhere near as intense as Sweeney's pieces (it's not even as good as Louis, Martin & Michael, to be honest), but Theroux's ability to disarm offers an all right roundabout look at how Scientology affects former members. Long-time Theroux fans like myself might be left wanting.
One of the film's recreations centers around a detention center for misbehaving Scientologists. We witness the kind of intimidation and humiliation that church members endured at the hands of their leader. Perez shifts into Miscaviage mode, becoming an abusive, self-righteous demon eager to demean as he is to shove and to strike and to break furniture to make a point. The Church of Scientology sends its team of stalkers to see what Theroux is up to. What might be unnerving is oddly undone thanks to Theroux's unshakable calm. Theroux does what he's always done best in these sorts of situations: he renders scary things absurd.
Theroux applies his trademark naivete, though it's on Rathbun rather than a current cult official. Rathbun's the closest that Theroux can get to the church directly, and he tries to ask questions, discern original motives, and get into the mind of a high-level Scientologist. Rathbun is practiced in the art of manipulation and intimidation, however, and a resentment builds between them. Those awkward moments in a Theroux piece are compelling to watch because they are such unguarded moments. Theroux gets a slight glimpse at the innerworkings of Rathbun, a complicated man who is much more of a mystery than whatever's going on in the Church of Scientology.