There has always been something intriguing about Scientology: the fact that so many celebrities are Scientologists and genuinely believe in it despite the huge controversy and media backlash. So naturally it has become a source of interest by documentary filmmakers and Louis Theroux takes a shot with My Scientology Movie after Alex Gibney’s 2015 Emmy award-winning Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison Belief. Theroux’s attempt, while interesting doesn’t offer anything new to the discussion of Scientology, however, it is still an interesting watch as you start to witness the intimidation tactics employed by the church that makes for compelling viewing.
When Theroux approached this topic for his documentary it is set up in the beginning that his initial vision was “Scientology from the inside” however, all attempts at contact were futile, leading to finding another angle. Unlike Gibney’s Going Clear, Theroux doesn’t immediately attempt to blast Scientology he genuinely curious about this ‘religion’ so he decides to talk to ex-Scientologists and through the use of actors attempt to recreate scenes from what the ex-Scientologists told him.
We meet various ex-Scientologists, the main one that features in this documentary was Marty Rathbun. He was a high-ranking member of the church, who details the abuse that he witnessed and admittedly participated in. The dynamic between Theroux and Rathbun throughout the documentary is very awkward, which is natural at the beginning of the documentary, but at times you wonder if a part of him still believes in Scientology. Throughout the film, a lot of ‘bitterness’ about Scientology is more or less directed at David Miscavige than the actual religion as a whole. When Theroux and Rathbun are working together on the enactments with the actors, he can come off as difficult at times. Praise does have to go to Theroux for not forgetting that Rathbun did participate in some of the beatings that were inflicted on other members, throughout the whole film they aren’t best friends just tentative allies – at times Theroux tries to get Rathbun to come on his participation with The Hole and beatings. However, at the end when Scientologists harass Rathbun and makes comments about his son, Theroux remarks that this is what he would do and order people to do causing Rathbun to get angry suggesting that he would never involve children. I respect Theroux for raising that issue but his tact could have been better, that was clearly not the right time and he came off as a bit of a dick and while they appear to have somewhat made up, it just leaves the film on a very awkward and very uncomfortable ending.
A good portion of this documentary is dedicated to Theroux’s challenge of hiring actors to play Tom Cruise – the most famous Scientologist, and David Miscavige, the leader. These scenes didn’t really do much for me, they didn’t provide anything extra; all you got was Rathbun complaining about the auditions. Once the actors were cast, you see Rathbun train them in some of the techniques employed by the Church, one of them being Squirrel Busting in which they harass and hurl insults the person swearing, saying that they are worth nothing. The only time that I felt that the re-enactment actually jelled with the film was when they recreated the reports about what happens in The Hole. It doesn’t have the effect that Theroux probably intended because it feels very fake but this is the only time where the use of re-enactments and actors made sense and therefore stands out.
As I mentioned the real interesting part of the documentary begins around 35-40 minutes in, when Theroux starts being followed by a car, this is when it starts to get compelling as you start to witness the intimidation tactics and while at first, they don’t scream aggressive, they do come off as creepy. Their favourite method is following Theroux and his crew by filming him – there would be a cameraman (unknown if he is Scientology or not, probably is) and one or two Scientologists. It’s interesting to see how evasive they are to Theroux and as the issue escalates how difficult and verbally aggressive they start to get.
There is a weak narrative that follows in the documentary, mainly due to the lack of access Theroux had. There was this bizarre moment near the beginning where Theroux is talking to Rathbun in his hotel room and a woman in a bikini walks past the glass window and interrupts saying that you can’t film her. She then introduces herself as an actress being ‘subtle’ about not wanting to be filmed (Spoiler: Her body language says the opposite). It is very strange and interesting that it was kept in. I didn’t understand it at first, but it works because of the awkward Theroux/Rathbun dynamic, it adds something different.
Do we get a conclusive ending? No, this is an ongoing topic that is still happening. But we do see Theroux’s quest on investigating Scientology, but as I said, you don’t learn anything new all the things you learn in the documentary you can find out online, in other documentaries and books written by ex-Scientologists. Nevertheless, this documentary is about Theroux poking the bear. The scenes in which he is faced with Scientologists is where the documentary thrives, it gets to the point where it seems like a 21st century passive aggressive version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when they Theroux and the Scientologists interact both filming each other.
Ultimately this isn’t your next ground-breaking documentary. I can’t imagine this getting a lot of awards or be Theroux’s most well-known documentary. There was quite a bit of a buzz behind this documentary and I can’t help but be disappointed in the content, maybe there were high expectations, especially after the success of Going Clear. But witnessing Scientologists in action and their reasoning behind it, it allows you to form your own opinions on the topic, especially one that isn’t as big in the UK as it is in America. This won’t offer you that many answers, but it’s still fascinating to watch.
My Scientology Movie
Director: John Dower
Scriptwriter: Louis Theroux; John Dower
Starring: Louis Theroux
Running Time: 99 minutes (1 hour 39 minutes)