unconvincing, that’s really all I have to say about this, but …
… I suppose it’s worth pausing to consider why that might be:
the scenario is quite simple, a twenty-something couple are planning an exposé of a mysterious cult, the documentary will launch their careers, but deeper personal motives drive their interest in the subject, will the mysterious leader be exposed as a charlatan? or will their (hidden) scepticism be overcome by the enigmatic leader, Maggie?
yet it’s not entirely clear what is at stake?
for us to want Maggie to be exposed, we’d need to be shown examples of the damage she has done, but the script (by director Batmanliji and star, Brit Marling) doesn’t go there, not until the final act and then it only hints previous activities, in fact, after treading a precarious line between faith and reason, the script falls on the side of the believer, the two would-be journos are naive and presumptuous – they haven’t done their research – and one of them, Peter, is clearly in need of long-overdue therapy, this is where it gets interesting, could it be that Peter’s vulnerability will lead him to destruction? almost, the script goes there, but it leaps into the final act too soon, before they’ve had time to dig the hole deep enough
I suspect it was for the viewer the screenwriters were digging the hole, the revelation at the end may surprise Peter, but it is designed to confound our sense of certainty – “so you thought you knew the score”, it seems to say, and I’d reply “yes, and so what?” … nothing is at stake and the film ends just getting as it was getting interesting
(sometimes screenwriters mistake twists for endings – but “peripeteia ain’t no catharsis,” as Aristotle Onassis used to say)
I’m getting ahead of myself here, it wasn’t the end that was the film’s undoing, it was the beginning, the poorly-handled exposition:
we join the two journos as they are guided through the elaborate procedure which precedes the meeting of the cult members, it’s their first time, but we’re told they’ve also been through a long preparation, you have to wonder what was the substance of that preparation because the script has Maggie deliver an introductory speech, telling us how she came to be in this world and kindly dramatized for us in flashback, after the meeting the two journos discuss why they’re making this exposé, as if they hadn’t already been through it, in other words, it is written as it were day one, when for those involved day one has long gone, more egregious exposition is yet to come, we’re served the back stories of our two journos as flashback montages with a voice-over, without any justification
this is poor writing, but there’s also a lack of substance:
the softly-spoken sylph-like Maggie is not your usual charismatic prophet, it’s an interesting choice, seduction over sulphur, but because she’s a bit of a tease and favours hints over hard sell, neither we nor the cult members get much of an idea of what she promises, they must have some idea, but we never find that out, you’d have thought the journalists would’ve been curious …
you wonder what the story would have looked like if told from the point of view of a genuine believer, the arc from conversion to disillusionment would have been far more precipitous, in learning the truth they might have lost something, and there would be opportunities for more drama, passing through betrayal, then the twist could work
it might also be a pretty good set up for a TV drama series