Magnolia Pictures

My Scientology Movie, the newest film by the British documentarian Louis Theroux, vibrates with effort—with machinations and stunts and stitch ups that all seem intent on producing an “aha” moment that remains tantalizingly out of reach. Watching it, you can see the work that went into distinguishing it from another, Emmy Award-winning documentary about Scientology released in 2015. You can observe Theroux, a master of drawing out taciturn interviewees, try harder and harder to come to grips with an ex-Scientologist whose career has been built on sticking to the script. And you can ultimately watch what happens when a documentary devised around access has to deal with being completely shut out by its subject. It’s a portrait of failure, but a fascinating one.

Theroux has apparently been pursuing a film about Scientology since the ’90s, with a goal of immersing himself in the organization in hopes of finding its human side. “For years my dream was that I might be the first journalist to find another, more positive side of the church,” he says, quixotically, at the beginning of My Scientology Movie. It makes sense. Theroux’s most compelling work has involved spending time with kooks and monsters, from American Nazis to members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and considering why they behave the way they do. As an organization, Scientology has all the ingredients that Theroux seems most captivated by: institutional authoritarianism, celebrities, bizarre behavior (his next project is reportedly about Donald Trump). But it’s also deeply invested in controlling its own message. So, deprived of any sanctioned access, My Scientology Movie is forced to get creative.

The plan that Theroux comes up with is meta in the extreme, and never fully explained in its conception. Realizing that the church will never let him in, Theroux and his director, John Dower, decide to hire actors in Los Angeles to recreate scenes recounted by ex-congregants, in an attempt to learn more about its methodology and behavior. It’s an idea that would swiftly disintegrate without the involvement of Marty Rathbun, one of the most senior figures in Scientology for several decades, and one of its best-known apostates. In a move that seems directly inspired by the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, Theroux asks Rathbun to help write and direct scenes of brutality within the church—abuses of which Rathbun was, at the time, a key perpetrator. There’s a discernible shift in focus midway through the movie, from Scientology to Rathbun himself.

There are several snags with this setup. One is that Rathbun has several decades’ worth of training in Scientology communications tools, so he’s mostly able to resist Theroux’s digs. (In one scene the two explore an exercise called “bull baiting,” in which Scientologists learn how to remain entirely neutral and silent while a partner screams in their face—something Theroux’s signature deadpan affect makes him extremely good at.) Another, murkier issue is that the tension in the movie hinges on Rathbun’s mental equilibrium, which Theroux keeps trying to disturb, like an innocent-faced schoolboy poking a dog with a stick.

The other source of drama is the church itself, which the filmmakers seem intent on provoking so they can get footage of authentic Scientologist meltdowns. They repeatedly set up cameras near a church complex outside the city, precipitating angry rants from church officials claiming they’re on private property. During one scene, while Theroux is out filming B-roll footage in his car, he seems almost pleased to notice a white car tailing him, since it means the church is paying attention. And when the crew notice a camera filming outside the studio space they’re using, Theroux delights in interacting with the cameraman (freelance, he says) and his partner, a Scientologist who doesn’t want to be interviewed. “If you’re filming me, how can I be harassing you?” he exclaims, shouting comically, “Come back!” when she walks away.

Deciphering the layers of the movie starts to feel increasingly headache-inducing: There are Scientology cameras filming Theroux, who’s filming them back, but he’s also filming actors rehearsing dramatic reenactments of scenes that happened in real life, in order to bait an individual who’s also being used as bait to provoke the church. The tension between Rathbun and Theroux grows increasingly charged. And it doesn’t ultimately shed much light on Scientology itself, which remains on the periphery. Theroux “casts” a tremendous actor, Andrew Perez, as David Miscavige, Scientology’s chairman of the board, and the scenes staging Miscavige’s alleged physical and verbal abuse of church higher-ups are enthralling. But they’ve already been explored in detail in Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, as well as in Leah Remini’s recent A&E docuseries. Fictionalizing them doesn’t add any of the insight Theroux was clearly hoping for.

One of the main issues seems to be a mismatch between director and subject. Theroux doesn’t usually editorialize: He embeds himself in a community or with an individual, makes them by turns comfortable and uncomfortable, and gets them to reveal facets of who they really are. But My Scientology Movie lacks the added context that might shine light on any of the events unfolding. Though there are some sparse details on the history of the church, there’s little to enlighten anyone who’s unfamiliar with the more extreme allegations of human-rights abuses and cult-like behavior that have dogged it in recent years. Possibly this is because Britain’s libel laws are notoriously generous to plaintiffs. But Theroux also seems intent on avoiding well-trodden ground, even if it’s fundamental to understanding how Scientology operates.

There’s one moment in which he offers an interpretation of the church that seems truly enlightening. Watching the actors rehearse a scene in which Miscavige excoriates colleagues, Theroux wonders if every religion has a specific capacity for cruelty embedded in its DNA. Scientology, based on an ethic of spartan endurance, mental and physical toughness, and unquestionable righteousness, is only a logical extension or two away from its most extreme practices: abusing miscreants (allegedly) and turning furiously on critics (visible in the movie itself). It’s the kind of insight that makes you wonder what he could have done, given access—which is, of course, precisely why Scientology never gave it to him.

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