Louis Theroux has a distinct style as a documentarian. He is the man who has access, who spends a great deal of time with his subjects and needles out insights and humour from their endless interactions. In making his first feature documentary Theroux has chosen a subject that forces him to change his strategy. You can say a lot of things about Scientology but nobody would ever call them accessible or open to being interviewed.
With no current member of the Church of Scientology to interview Theroux takes a large amount of inspiration from The Act of Killing and makes a different kind of documentary. Someone Theroux does have access to is Marty Rathbun; a defector from the Scientology who used to be one of the most powerful members of the Church. In between the types of conversations we have come to expect from a Louis Theroux documentary they settle into a Los Angeles studio, set up casting calls for the Church’s leader David Miscavige and celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise and Theroux gets Rathbun to direct re-enactments of his history with the church. The focus is not on the arguably outlandish claims of Scientology but on the training techniques they use and on claims of violent abuse made against Miscavige. Before too long Theroux does not need to go to the Scientologists as the Scientologists come to him in retaliation.
The switch in style helps demarcate this film from Theroux’s huge body of television work. There has been a deliberate choice to make something cinematic and as such the approach is that which could not be achieved on a television budget. The resulting film is funny and insightful but not as in-depth as other Scientology documentaries and not quite as personal or funny as traditional Theroux output. The lack of access to the Church means that we have to go without endless scenes of Theroux asking awkward questions of Scientologists and potentially getting a reaction no one else can get. We do get glimpses of what fun this might have been as he is confronted by a prominent Scientologist whilst filming on a public road near their studios but sadly this makes up the minority of the film when normally it would have been the film’s core.
It is these moments of confrontation and antagonisation that have brought Theroux a legion of loyal fans. We get to see him being perfectly reasonable and yet incredibly cheeky in the face of the unreasonable and the deluded. When Louis comes up against an immovable object he is precisely the right irresistible force than manages to goad them into dropping their facade and revealing any unpleasantness that might lie beneath.
I suppose my only complaint with My Scientology Movie is actually a big compliment. I just wanted more. I wanted more insight into the machinations of the church and I wanted more Louis Theroux. Granted Theroux was never going to make an in-depth historical documentary but I wish he had been able to gain access to more members to ask uncomfortable questions of. While the film was running I was laughing away and feeling deeply uncomfortable at the right moments but when it was finished I was disappointed. I didn’t want it to end as I hadn’t yet had my fill. I loved the film enough to resent it for having ended.
Louis Theroux remains a master of his craft and I cannot wait to see how his feature documentary career develops. Whatever gets me more Theroux makes me happy. This is not the definitive Scientology documentary but it is most definitely Louis Theroux’s and it is a fascinating and enjoyable ride.