Director: John Dower
You can understand why affable documentarian Louis Theroux would save the subject of Scientology for his feature debut – directed by John Dower. The strange, secretive ‘religion’ is so notorious for its bizarre and ominous power and influence, especially within LA, that it’s as juicy a target as he’s ever encountered. The size and scope of the organisation would seem fitting for an extended examination. So the initial intention makes perfect sense. But in a real sense My Scientology Movie suggests that Theroux has finally met his match. His trademark approach is to cordially allow his spurious subjects to hang themselves with their own words.
But you can’t lose if you do not play.
The Church Of Scientology was never going to participate in this exercise. Unfortunately that makes Dower and Theroux’s film a frustrating non-starter from the get-go. Using Scientology’s own promotional footage, Theroux sketches a brief outline of its history and two leaders thus far – founder L. Ron Hubbard and successor David Miscaviage – but soon after he hits a wall.
Enter Marty Rathbun, one of the Church’s most notable former members who rides along with Theroux, recounting tales of brutal physical misconduct perpetrated by Miscaviage that he witnessed, discussing the methods by which Scientology controls its members, going so far as to suggest, as in any significant cult, that people are kept within the Church against their will. They’re all semi-familiar stories and within the realms of believability, but Rathbun isn’t quite enough to condemn Scientology on his lonesome. You sense Theroux grasping at straws to engage his subject, but lacking a decisive method of doing so.
So Theroux and Rathbun start auditioning actors to make their own alternative Scientology film; a project that isn’t really defined with satisfaction. They have stages and sets, but the end game is foggy. One assumes it is a means to an end. A provocation to get a response from the Church.
Theroux and Rathbun are tailed by sinister white SUVs, they are openly filmed at the studio and, in a sequence that Theroux deems interesting enough to repeat, they are threatened with police intervention when they stop to film outside land owned by the Church.
They are also – surprise, surprise – threatened with legal action. Theroux partially shares the content of these letters, which include the kind of bizarre phrasing and threatening rhetoric already evidenced in archival footage of, who else, Tom Cruise. They claim Theroux’s documentary amounts to little more than baseless character assassination. But while much of the rest sounds absurd, on this they unfortunately have a something of a point. My Scientology Movie does have the feel of sloppy character assassination because there’s nothing specific enough here to focus on. It only ever feels as though Theroux is scratching aimlessly around the edges.
I’m not necessarily saying Scientology deserves the benefit of the doubt. The insinuations presented here are, if true, deeply unsettling. But there’s no balance to this film, which targets the Goliath enterprise as an entity of sinister absurdity and nothing more. Positive attributes of the Church are acknowledged but never explored. The intent here, from the beginning, is to take it apart. Theroux fails to do so.
Still, the Church does not represent itself well. The film crews that confront Theroux and Rathbun (making their own documentary on them) won’t be goaded into conversation, won’t reveal their names or admit their intentions. Later, Rathbun is accosted by members at the airport and he films the confrontation with his phone. The people shouting him down appear like lunatics. But so what? That was the assumption anyway, right? Whose mind is being changed by My Scientology Movie?
Theroux only lightly pushes Rathbun, conscious perhaps that if he detonates their relationship he’ll have nowhere left to go. When he finally does, it’s mistimed, and he gets very little except perhaps a telling response. The film wanders into a cul-de-sac and then just kinda ends. Mission aborted.
There are fun oddities here and there. Early on, the filming of Theroux and Rathbun’s first conversation for the movie is interrupted by – of all people – actress Paz de la Huerta, a literal bystander who at once seems to want their attention but also her privacy, weirdly unable to comprehend that they aren’t there to document her. But kooky happenstances like this aren’t even part of the core investigation. Elsewhere, one suspects that an entire film could be made about the actor Theroux casts as Miscaviage; his final ‘performance’ takes Dower’s film into some very strange territory.
I am a fan of Theroux’s docu-tainment, but it’s disappointing to report that this is ultimately one of his least successful endeavours. We know little more at the end than we did at the beginning, save for further rumours and insinuations. If anything My Scientology Movie enhances the mystique of its subject matter instead of exposing what’s happening behind the curtain.