Overview: Filmmaker Louis Theroux sets out to make an objective documentary about Scientology, but when stonewalled by the church, he enlists the help of a former Scientologist and leaves conventional storytelling behind. BBC Films; 2015; Not Rated; 99 minutes.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”: There’s a scene near the end of Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie, where the filmmaker is seen talking with someone off camera after an emotionally grueling scene. Theroux confides that it’s becoming hard to know just how much he can responsibly reveal to the participants in his genre-bending film. Marty Rathbun, a former senior executive within the Church of Scientology who left acrimoniously, approaches from the stage doors, unseen until he raises his voice, “Welcome to my world.”
There are many meta moments like this one in this gripping movie-within-a-documentary about the infamous religion-within-the-cult-of-Hollwood. If you’re interested in this story, you’ve likely read some of the dozens of blogs or books written by former members of the church, or seen Alex Gibney’s near-flawless Going Clear. You have every reason to think you’ve heard this all before, and likely much of it you have. But you haven’t seen it—at least not like this, and that’s where this documentary—released simultaneously this week in theaters and available for streaming—gets audacious and where things get interesting.
A Reliable Narrator: At the outset, Theroux states his motivation: having heard all of the horror stories, he wanted to attempt to take an honest look at Scientology—what made it work and why many good people believed. You might be able to imagine how well this went. Instead of cooperation, Theroux got alternately stonewalled or ignored by the church. By necessity, he had to approach the whole subject differently. Instead of a typical documentary format, he created something more akin to collage filmmaking, splicing real footage alongside simulations of previously unseen moments from behind the walls of Scientology’s inscrutably named buildings—Gold Base, Flag Building, The Celebrity Centre. Theroux needed actors, a set, and a script. To pull all this off, he would need an inside man, and he landed one in Marty Rathbun, one of the church’s most powerful former insiders. Once a member of the church’s inner circle, he is one of the few former Scientologists who can speak knowledgably about church leadership, particularly that of David Miscavige, leader since founder L. Ron Hubbard’s death in 1996.
Theroux has a singular, untraditional on-air presence, and whereas some other presenters might play much of the film for laughs, Theroux instead brings a calm earnestness to his approach. Even when rattled by Rathbun’s temper or confronted by local police for coming too close to Scientology-owned property, Theroux remains unruffled. Aside from a clear natural curiosity about other people, his most valuable skill as an interviewer is his ability to remain still and silent in moments of genuine discomfort. When he asks a difficult question and gets an incomplete or evasive response, he lets the pendulous moments hang there, the space filling with meaning. He listens for openings like a comedian but has the patience and bearing of a therapist. Unlike the whistleblowing of former Scientologist Leah Remini on her A&E documentary series, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, Theroux appears to have no explicit mission here beyond compelling storytelling and a commitment to the truth. Inside of that, you’ll find the space to carve out your own meaning and come to your own conclusions. In the age of Serial and impassioned Reddit forums, it’s refreshing to consume media that doesn’t feel the need to be crusading, and to feel outraged without being lectured.
An Unpredictable Subject: After leaving the church (“blowing” in Scientology terms) in 2004 in what Rathbun recounts here as a daring motorcycle escape in the middle of the night, he effectively becomes the church’s most vilified enemy and claims to have suffered years of harassment. It’s easy to empathize and imagine the sort of effect this would have on anyone, so it’s perhaps not surprising that for reliable a guide as Theroux is, Rathbun is often unpredictable, sometimes volatile, and always idiosyncratic.
There is a crackling tension between the two of them and it makes for the most honest portrait of Rathbun we’ve seen thus far. After all, it’s one thing to know the outline of someone’s story (as most anyone familiar with Scientology will know Rathbun’s), but it’s another to see them presented as a complex person—real, vulnerable, hurt, difficult, bellicose. Anyone who has been exploited, as was Rathbun during his time in the church, couldn’t be expected to come out unscathed, and there are moments where you might question whether in the recounting of his story for the documentary, Rathbun is again being exploited. He has unfinished business with the church and particularly with Miscavige so omnipresent it might as well get its own screen credit. Yet there’s a noteworthy side of Rathbun we don’t see in My Scientology Movie: He is never contrite. That’s not to say that he isn’t. We only get 99 minutes with him here. But for as victimized as he had been (and he has suffered), according to some of the former Scientologists interviewed on camera, Rathbun also doled out his fair share of harassment to former members when he was on the inside. Theroux admirably presses Rathbun on his complicity, to surprising effect. While this insider’s look might not have the cringe-worthy moments of a documentary like Weiner, you’ll likely still fight the impulse to squirm in your seat. And that’s just good filmmaking.
Overview: In one of the last moments we see Rathbun in the film, he’s half-muttering an aside to Theroux about the power Scientology still has over his life, “They keep pulling me back in.” For all the shows, books, blogs, movies and interviews still produced about Scientology, clearly the culture is still fascinated by it because the essential questions are still so compelling. How do good people get taken? Why do they stay? What kind of control does Scientology exert on them? Surprisingly, despite everything you may have read or seen before, My Scientology Movie offers plenty of new insights, even if they’re more of a window into the personal versus the cultural. If you’re one of the many morbidly fascinated by the religion and its lure, you’d likely watch most anything about it, but fortunately the time you spend with Theroux and Rathbun on this particular journey will be well worth it. You won’t mind getting pulled back in one more time.
Featured Image: BBC Films
Edited for content on 3/13/17