Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie pulls off the neat trick of finding a revelatory approach to a topic that’s been well covered of late: the Church of Scientology. For longtime Scientology obsessives, the last few years have puked up a glut of Scientology exposés. Paul Thomas Anderson downplayed similarities between The Master and the early years of L Ron Hubbard’s group, but the film still gives a good idea of how it may have developed. More worrying for Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige, was Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear – rich in accounts from church apostates, lawyered-up and fact-checked to the nth degree – and the no-less-excoriating Alex Gibney documentary based on it. Both book and film were devastating for Scientology’s reputation.
If Going Clear had a failing, it was in its reluctance to fully call to account some of its witnesses, including a figure who reappears in Theroux’s movie, former church disciplinarian Marty Rathburn. Theroux takes an indirect approach. Basing himself in LA, he puts out a casting call for people to play Scientology followers, as well as Miscavige and Tom Cruise.
The intent is to replicate on film, with the help of Rathburn, alleged practices never witnessed by outsiders: an E-meter session (newbies are probed for emotional weaknesses); a “bull-bait” drill (designed to instil fortitude through extreme belittlement); and a disciplinary session in “The Hole” (allegedly a trailer in the California desert), with Miscavige – played by actor Andrew Perez – abusing his disgraced senior management. (Of the three, the church only recognises E-meter sessions as official practice.)
These exercises, essentially actors’ workshops guided by Rathburn, are evocative and powerful, particularly the scenes in The Hole, which Theroux calls “the extreme but logical extension of the core principles of Scientology”. They are the movie’s most extraordinary moments.
But this is the super-paranoid Church of Scientology, and soon they are on Theroux’s tail, trailing his car, implicitly threatening Rathburn, openly filming them, and harassing them with legal threats (they aggressively blanket-deny everything). This prompts the movie’s other masterstroke: Theroux undermining Marty Rathburn’s authority by reminding him that these abusive strategies were originally invented by… Marty Rathburn. Marty doesn’t like that one bit, and can’t hide it. I think Rathburn is – on balance – an anti-Scientology hero, but we deserve the more ambiguous, troubling portrait sketched here.
For these reasons, My Scientology Movie belongs in the company of the most serious work done on the church. The more sunlight that falls on this dark organisation, the better for all of us.
My Scientology Movie is in cinemas from 7 October