It's not the Scientology movie we were expecting, but Louis never lets us down.
Louis Theroux has never been shy of taking risks in his documentary making. He’s spent time with neo-Nazis, broken bread with the Westboro Baptist Church, and now, undertaking what is realistically the biggest risk of his career thus far, has stepped into the ring with David Miscavige and his Church of Scientology. It is a gamble that ultimately falls a bit flat, and that’s only really because of how inaccessible Scientology proves to be; there’s not much in this film that Alex Gibney’s much-lauded Going Clear hasn’t already revealed.
My Scientology Movie has Theroux and Marty Rathbun – the Former Inspector General of the Church of Scientology, and self-proclaimed ‘baddest-ass dude’ in it – make a film together, re-enacting some of the most sinister scenes from David Miscavige’s tenure as the affiliation’s leader. This plot to make a film within his film obviously stems from Scientology’s reluctance to collaborate. Apart from interviews with multiple ex-members, Theroux is granted only a few instances of correspondence with the ‘church’; these come in the form of absurd encounters with over-zealous Sea Organisation (a religious order for the Scientology religion composed of the most dedicated Scientologists) members, as him and his camera men make repeat visits to the boundaries of the enigmatic ‘Gold Base’ – the site where many of Miscavige’s alleged misconducts are supposed to have taken place.
But the real tension in this film isn’t between Theroux and the Scientologists – it’s between him and Rathbun. Really, Scientology comes out of Louis’s movie looking just like what most people already see it as: a pyramid-scheming, sci-fi-loving cult full of egomaniacs – there’s nothing new there. But the slowly unravelling rapport of Theroux and Rathbun is an interesting side-effect of this documentary; the strange aftermath of almost half a life of Scientology shows itself in Rathbun’s misplaced excitement when he coaches would-be Miscavige in the reconstructions. He delights in the violent specifics with a smile that looks like nostalgia. And as pieces of the past are revealed, the Former Inspector General’s role in the film shifts dramatically, from being introduced as a plucky American sidekick – a sort of counter-character to the calm and collected Theroux – to leaving in explosive fashion. He has since expressed regret for his involvement in the documentary, calling Theroux an ‘ass clown’ and accusing the production team of elaborating certain parts of the film. Other ex-Scientologists that were featured in My Scientology Movie have refuted these claims, with several of them suggesting that this is simply Rathbun running from the Scientologist skeletons in his closet.
Marty Rathbun is, whether he likes it or not, the accidental hero of the film; through the absence of any of the factual revelations that many were anticipating, Theroux has guided us into Rathbun’s psyche – a satisfying consolation for the viewer. His volatile reaction to the film has only made it a more important one, because the dialogue that Theroux has provoked can only help to spring new leaks in the almost impenetrable hull of the Sea Org.
My Scientology Movie (2016), directed by John Dower, is distributed in the UK by Altitude. Certificate 15.