×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Film Review: ‘My Scientology Movie’

Louis Theroux delivers another blow to the enigmatic church's public image in this irreverent but unnerving doc.

With:
Louis Theroux, Mark "Marty" Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht, Marc Headley, Steve Mango, Catherine Fraser.

Official Site: http://film.britishcouncil.org/my-scientology-movie

The very title “My Scientology Movie” suggests a juvenile goof-off on a serious subject. It could even be read as a dryly self-deprecating acknowledgment — as befits writer-presenter Louis Theroux’s very British demeanor — of its shagginess in the wake of Alex Gibney’s searing Scientology inquiry “Going Clear” earlier this year. Underestimate Theroux at your peril, however: His and director John Dower’s approach may be a lot daffier than Gibney’s, complete with casting sessions for a fake Tom Cruise and an uninvited cameo from a bikini-clad starlet, but this riotously funny doc yields its own penetrating insights into the fiercely guarded administration of the church that Ron built. It’s also a witty essay on the politics of surveillance, as it emerges that Theroux is in turn being filmed by those he’s investigating — a twist as anxiety-inducing as it is absurd. Ancillary returns, given a still-hot topic and Theroux’s substantial following, should impress the pic’s auditors.

The possessive adjective in “My Scientology Movie” is perhaps misleading. Theroux — the lanky, likable broadcaster and docmaker best known for his globe-trotting BBC specials — may be front and center throughout this characteristically good-humored, personality-driven project, but it’s another man who turns out to be its conflicted star: Mark “Marty” Rathbun, a former senior executive of the Church of Scientology who, after 27 years in the institution, acrimoniously departed in 2004. As one of the Church’s most outspoken opponents, Rathbun was also prominently featured in “Going Clear,” but Dower and Theroux use him here as far more than a talking head — inviting him to co-direct vividly imagined re-enactments of behind-the-wall activity, including the allegedly violent scare tactics of Church leader David Miscavige.

Yet collaboration comes with its own own thorny complications, as Theroux can’t resist pondering the ex-member’s degree of complicity in the “terroristic” activity he now condemns — notably the rumored abuse and incarceration of perceived dissidents in a confined area (known as “the hole”) of the Church’s high-security Gold Base estate in rural California. Rathbun bristles hotly at insinuations of his own involvement, but Theroux’s needling of his notional ally isn’t just cheeky journalistic provocation. Rather, his unwelcome questioning of Rathbun’s past serves to remind viewers that we may or may not be dealing with an unreliable narrator, one dismissed by the Church as “an embittered liar with (an) ax to grind.” The institution’s word, of course, is even less transparent than his; the pic’s question isn’t so much whom to believe as whom to let steer our imagination.

Theroux finds similarly disgruntled (and similarly Church-discredited) former Scientologists to indirectly corroborate Rathbun’s compelling testimony — though Jeff Hawkins, a former member of their elite, militaristic Sea Org wing, suggests he’s withholding key information. Needless to say, no current Scientologists have come forward to present their side of the story, barring involuntary on-camera appearances from senior official (and Hawkins’ ex-wife) Catherine Fraser and a bizarre coterie of unidentified “squirrel busters,” recruited to menace Theroux and Rathbun into desisting.

Holding true to their favored method of seeking truth in farcical illusion, then, Theroux and Dower compensate for that absence through masquerade. Enlisting a non-affiliated actor to play Miscavige according to Rathbun’s script, they stage detailed dramatizations of supposed goings-on at Gold Base. These mini-plays can’t claim any certain basis in fact, but even at a hypothetical level, they’re riveting — not least because the team’s chosen thesp, Andrew Perez, is so chillingly persuasive as the religion’s externally glib but possibly paranoid leader. Astonishing performances in documentary re-enactments are rare indeed, but Perez barrels in as a man possessed, seemingly channeling several “Glengarry Glen Ross” characters at once and lending gravity to what could have been a shtick-y exercise. (A Wayfarer-wearing Tom Cruise stand-in, by comparison, barely registers.)

Any viewers after an extension of Gibney’s tough-minded research project may be bemused by Theroux’s more playful brand of speculative satire and outright burlesque — complete with a thrumming, exaggerated orchestral score by Dan Jones. As Theroux defies signage to explore the perimeter of Gold Base and rankle Church guardians along the way, this is still shoe-leather reporting of a sort, but the shoes in question are closer to flip-flops. Either way, it’s certainly enough to concern Scientology brass, who begin tailing Theroux’s shoot with camera crews of their own — a reversal of the lens that a fictional conspiracy thriller could hardly have executed with more elegant irony. (In one hilarious scene, an iPhone-wielding Theroux and a Church-employed cameraman circle each other silently in an extended digital staring contest, recording each other’s mutual suspicion for posterity.)

In one sense, “My Scientology Movie” is as modest as its title implies: There are no grand revelations here, only interpretations of what we suppose, which are as amusing as they are troubling. Perhaps it’s the Brit’s deadpan sense of mischief that most vexes his targets. Humanizing a very private organization’s public face is one challenge; proving it no laughing matter is quite another.

London Film Review: 'My Scientology Movie'

Reviewed at London Film Festival (Debate), Oct. 13, 2015. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — U.K.-U.S.) A BBC Films, BBC Worldwide presentation of a Red Box Films production. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Produced by Simon Chinn. Executive producers, Christine Langan, Charlotte Moore, Mark Reynolds, Joe Oppenheimer. Co-producer, Vanessa Tovell.

Crew: Directed by John Dower. Written by Louis Theroux, Dower. Camera (color, HD), Will Pugh; editor, Paul Carlin; music, Dan Jones; production designer, Alessandro Marvelli; set decorator, Teressa Tunney; sound, Steve Hopkins; supervising sound editor, Max Bygrave; re-recording mixer, George Foulgham; casting, Ron Blair.

With: Louis Theroux, Mark "Marty" Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht, Marc Headley, Steve Mango, Catherine Fraser.

More Film

  • Box Office Film Placeholder

    China Box Office: Taiwan's 'More Than Blue' Wins Second Weekend

    Taiwanese melodrama, “More Than Blue” held strong at the Chinese box office, to secure a second week of success. The film is a Chinese-language remake of a Korean film from 2009, involving Singapore’s MM2 and the filmmaking arm of Fox Networks. With little in the way of strong, new competition, “blue” scored $27 million, according [...]

  • Noah CentineoNickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, Show,

    Kids’ Choice Awards 2019: JoJo Siwa, Noah Centineo Take on Bullying

    This year’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards was full of positivity and encouragement to be yourself. DJ Khaled, known for his upbeat mantras, hosted the 32nd annual awards ceremony alongside JoJo Siwa at USC’s Galen center. Siwa accepted the award for favorite social music star. Siwa said in her acceptance speech, “I get hated on every [...]

  • Us Scriptwriter and Film-maker Larry Cohen

    Larry Cohen, Cult Horror Writer-Director of 'It's Alive,' Dies at 77

    Larry Cohen, best known for his work as a B-movie producer and director in the ’70s and his later work in screenwriting, has died. He was 77. Cohen’s friend, actor and publicist Shade Rupe, confirmed the news, which was announced in a post to Cohen’s official Facebook page. Rupe said Cohen died in Los Angeles [...]

  • Captain Marvel

    Box Office: 'Captain Marvel' Shatters $900 Million Milestone

    Brie Larson’s “Captain Marvel” continues to do heroic business. In its latest box office milestone, the female-fronted superhero tentpole zoomed past $900 million in ticket sales worldwide. “Captain Marvel” brought in a mighty $87 million globally this weekend, including $52 million from international territories. It has now generated $589 million overseas for a global haul [...]

  • Us - Lupita Nyong’o - cr:

    Box Office: Jordan Peele's 'Us' Stuns With $70 Million Opening Weekend

    Talk about scary good. Universal’s “Us,” the second directorial effort from Jordan Peele, pulled off a stunning debut, generating $70 million from 3,741 North American locations. That haul is enough to land it the second-best opening weekend of the year behind Disney’s “Captain Marvel” ($153 million). The psychological thriller about a family confronted by a [...]

  • SHAZAM

    Film Review: 'Shazam!'

    In “Shazam!,” Zachary Levi brings off something so winning it’s irresistible. He plays a square-jawed, rippling-muscled man of might, with a cheesy Day-Glo lighting bolt affixed to his chest, who projects an insanely wholesome and old-fashioned idea of what a superhero can be. But he’s also playing a breathless teenage kid on the inside, and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content