“I was the baddest-ass dude in Scientology,” declares Marty Rathbun in My Scientology Movie, a surreal documentary in which British journalist Louis Theroux attempts to make a film about the most controversial religious organization of the 20th century… only to find himself in the crosshairs when they send hostile surveillance crews out to film him right back.
Truer words have rarely been spoken about Rathbun, a devoted Scientologist for over a quarter century who served as its Inspector General and right-hand man to feared leader David Miscavige. That is, until he “blew” and left the church in 2004, thus becoming one of Scientology’s most aggressively targeted enemies.
While acting as Scientology’s second-in-command, Rathbun revealed last year in Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, he was instructed to wiretap Nicole Kidman, a suspected “SP”—or suppressive person, aka an enemy of the church—and engineer her split from the most famous Scientologist in the world, Tom Cruise.
In one interview, an ex-member remembers being sucker-punched years ago during an internal church interrogation—by Rathbun, who nonchalantly acknowledges the assault when meekly challenged by Theroux. It’s no wonder he’s been subjected to one of the church’s most fervent discreditation campaigns since leaving 12 years ago. After all, as another ex-Scientologist explains in the film: “Marty knows where all the bodies are buried.”
Rathbun’s presence throughout My Scientology Movie is just one of several unconventional twists in director John Dower’s film, which premiered at Tribeca and opens on an unusual gimmick. Stymied for years in his attempts to interview members of the church, Theroux set up camp at a studio in Los Angeles and set out to understand how Scientology works, both as a belief system and an image-savvy corporatized organization, by interviewing former members, inserting himself into the process, and staging dramatic reenactments of key moments in Scientology for the camera.
He flies Rathbun to Hollywood from his home in Texas to consult and help cast amateur L.A. actors to play the elusive Miscavige, members of the church, and Cruise—part education for Theroux and his actors, part exorcism of personal ghosts for Rathbun. Along the way, Rathbun develops a complex closeness to Theroux, forging one of the more unusual and sometimes volatile filmmaker-subject relationships ever committed to nonfiction film.
The fact that Rathbun delivers that “bad ass dude” explanation while riding in the passenger seat as Theroux drives around the greater Los Angeles area, a la Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, only adds to the sublimely Kafkaesque strangeness the film achieves with surprising regularity. That unreal edge unfolds as Theroux, filming his vehicular conversations with Rathbun on a dash cam, realizes they’re being followed by a white SUV while driving through town. Later, Scientology members pop up while the crew is out in the field, bringing their own cameras to silently record Theroux’s every move.
One of the film’s more bizarre incidents captured in My Scientology Movie happens early on, shortly after Theroux picks Rathbun up at LAX. As they stand awkwardly in a hotel room in front of a giant window overlooking the pool, a beautiful woman in a bikini coyly knocks on the door, demanding to know what they’re filming. “My name is Paz,” she eventually says, revealing herself to be Boardwalk Empire actress Paz de la Huerta in the strangest inadvertent celebrity cameo of the year. As soon as she leaves, Theroux grows paranoid.
“They sent her over, don’t you think?” theorizes an incredulous Theroux. “… Honey trap!”
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