Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie is a remarkable, unconventional documentary that provides fascinating, human insight into the Church of Scientology.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was defined by its exploration of polar opposites on a collision course. The unbridled insanity of The Joker confronting the repressed, adamantine moral code of Batman was one of the best rendezvous between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Until now.
Louis Theroux’s latest documentary shows that the most effective unstoppable force comes in the guise of a lanky, bespectacled, impassive Englishman who moves the object by making it go crazy.
In many ways, it is literally Theroux’s movie about Scientology: he hires and directs actors to play key church figures like Tom Cruise and act out their publicly available speeches and interviews. A former high-ranking member, Marty Rathbun, advises and re-enacts some of the exercises and duties he says he performed as the Inspector General – the Church’s enforcer. Along the way Louis talks to Rathbun about his Scientology experiences and visits some church locations.
In another way, it’s a ‘movie’ because it isn’t really structured like a documentary. If anything it’s a 90-minute lesson in trolling. This eccentricity of hired actors and quintessential, awkward Therouxian silences makes the film hilariously surreal and distinguishes My Scientology Movie from the two other high-profile Scientology films: BBC Panorama’s Scientology and Me, and Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Theroux’s documentary is not on another level, it’s on a whole different plane of reality altogether.
The film’s most revealing moments come about when Louis isn’t even trying to talk to its members but rather when they try to interact with him. The confrontation between the Church and Louis about whether the road he is standing on is private or public (it’s public and he has a permit, as he hilariously repeats) is one of the funniest interactions anyone has ever had with the church.
That one moment manages to reduce a powerful, feared multi-billion dollar organisation to standing on the side of a road at night, arguing about whether it is public or private with an Englishman who just keeps repeating “I have a permit” and says he will only stop filming the Church when they stop filming him. It is by fully engaging in such ludicrous situations that Theroux’s film comments most effectively on the church.
Whereas Panorama went to Scientology (it even liaised with the church’s media rep) and Gibney did the opposite by interviewing ex-members, Theroux takes the third option: just gently pokes in the vague direction of the church and roll the cameras.
This flexible approach not only applies to the film’s form, but to its subject matter. Yes, the film is about Scientology, but Theroux doesn’t treat that as a diktat to just investigate the church. If anything, the church is a welcome intrusion, contributing to the wider investigations about the religion and about concepts of power, control and most importantly – people.
This is demonstrated by Theroux’s visits to the unknown actors who were part of the church and hiring of unknowns to play famous Scientology members. Where Panorama and Sweeney’s documentaries focused very heavily on Scientology’s Hollywood connections, Theroux stays away from such well-tread and therefore now superficial points. He uses the actors to suggest that perhaps it’s not the fame that drives people, but something deeper, more primal: the need for human contact.
During the first time they film in LA, a woman in her underwear appears and asks them to stop filming, before saying that she is an actress and rattling off her entire CV and skills. Was she just an actress seeing a camera and sensing an opportunity or someone who just wanted to be noticed in the anonymous urban jungle of LA? The fact that the woman turns out to be Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta makes these questions all the more bizarre. At its heart that is what Theroux’s documentary is really about – the surreality of humanity, manifested by Scientology’s members.
This human aspect of the religion is ultimately the backbone of the documentary, at the top of which isn’t the church’s leader David Miscavige, or Tom Cruise – but Marty Rathbun. He embodies all the themes that fascinate Theroux about the religion: power, fear, lack of self awareness, insecurity. For decades a high ranking member, he left the church in 2004 and has since become its most vocal, vehement critic, even appearing in Alex Gibney’s documentary.
Perhaps it is this peripeteia piqued Theroux’s interest about Rathbun. A religious zealot turned fervent apostate. What happened? Why is Marty doing it? “I was the baddest-ass dude in Scientology. The hierarchy of the Church of Scientology was absolutely at the beck and call of me,” Rathbun smugly tells Louis, yet becomes irrationally angry and defensive when Louis asks what exactly that entailed.
Throughout its 99-minute runtime Theroux gently skirts around Rathbun’s role, occasionally prodding the beast with a direct question about his involvement. The result is a masterpiece in documentary filmmaking and interviewing – by toeing around an unpredictable Rathbun, Theroux manages to create a silhouette of a flawed character, a man convinced he is doing the right thing but perhaps keeping his more primal motivations close to his chest. Is the rush of being the Church’s enforcer and its self-appointed destructor exactly the same?
Theroux’s lack of a rigid agenda, willingness to engage in ludicrous situations and exploration of the more abstract concepts tied to the religion, make this a remarkable, unconventional and highly illuminating look at one of the world’s newest religions. 5/5