Big Screen: Louis Theroux – My Scientology Movie
September 20th 2016
Scientology is like the North Korea of religious organisations. No-one really knows how they operate, but the more we learn, the more we realise that it’s bat-shit crazy.
Ex-members of Scientology are cut off from their families, harassed if they speak to the media. Journalists get stonewalled for asking too many questions. So when Louis Theroux set out to make a documentary on Scientology, I was stoked to see what would happen.
Louis’s humble but inquisitive interview style seemed like the perfect contrast to a religion renowned for turning Tom Cruise into a couch-jumping maniac. However, there was one tiny hiccup: no-one from the Church of Scientology wanted to talk to Louis.
So, Theroux decided to audition actors to reenact the stories told to him by ex-Scientologists. That’s when things get weird.
The Scientologists retaliate by tailing Theroux’s car and sending film crews to hassle him. It becomes clear that they have no idea who they’re dealing with. This is Louis Theroux; at this point, name-calling and people sticking cameras in his face is practically part of his job.
He’s so calm and reasonable during his responses that you almost feel embarrassed for the Scientologists. This creates a problem for the film: because although it highlights the deep insecurities the Scientologists must have with their ridiculous belief system, it doesn’t give Louis much scope to do what he does best. To draw people out and get them talking about why they view the world in a particular way.
The rest of the film sees Louis auditioning and casting amateur actors to play David Miscavage, the head of the Church of Scientology. It’s interesting seeing actors try to play the enigmatic leader, because when Louis compares their performances with the real footage of Miscavage, you realise that there are some types of crazy that you just can’t fake. I desperately wanted to see Miscavage make an appearance, to see who he was when he wasn’t just the Church leader.
The auditions are overseen by someone who knows how far Miscavage can go. Mark Rathbun, one of the highest-profile ex-members of Scientology, was Miscavage’s enforcer, and only left the Church after he was repeatedly beaten by the Church leader and locked in a prison that was referred to as ‘The Hole’.
Since escaping, Mark has spoken out strongly against Scientology – Louis uses those stories as the basis for his dramatic re-enactments. By involving Rathbun in the reenactments, Louis tries to unpack why Rathbun would involve himself in an organisation that’s comfortable using violence to protect its secrets. The inference Louis keeps making is that Rathbun is complicit in the crimes of Miscavage. And even though at numerous points in the movie Rathbun admits that he used the same violent techniques himself, Louis’s questioning never hits its mark.
This is the flaw in Louis’s film. The reenactments only ever focus on Miscavage, so Rathbun never has to play the role of the assailant.
It means that he always identifies as the victim of Scientology, maintaining an emotional distance from his role as its enforcer. And when he is eventually challenged on it, he’s not enlightened: he just thinks Louis is an asshole.
The dramatic reenactment is an interesting technique, but Louis bungles it. Instead of it being the fascinating character study I think Louis wanted it to be, we’re just left with a pissed-off Rathbun, and an amateur actor doing B-movie villain impressions.
Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie is great if you want to poke fun at one of the world’s weirdest religions, but as a documentary, it falls short of an insightful exposé. Throw it on if you’re in for a Louis movie marathon, but otherwise there are better Scientology documentaries out there.