Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Movie Review: "The Conspiracy" by David Pretty

Suppose I were to tell you that the world is controlled by a small, rich, cabal of illuminated elites. Would you scoff, call me paranoid and then write me off as delusional? Or would you admit that this is perfectly feasible if not self-evident given the sad state of the world? At the very least, I'm willing to wager that my claim would certainly inspire a passionate reaction.

The Conspiracy is just one reaction to that claim courtesy of indie film-makers Aaron and Jim. Intrigued by a viral video that makes light of a local n' vocal, bullhorn-armed conspiracy nut named Terrance, the two decide to make a documentary about his theories. At first Terrence's tin-foil-hat leanings seem like the stuff of parody but the more they listen to him, the more he starts to make sense.

Things get even weirder when Terrance vanishes off the face of the earth just days after he notices that he's being followed. In an desperate bid to un-bury their lead, Aaron re-creates the missing man's work and soon discovers that every major world event has been preceded by a meeting of the shadowy secret society known as the Tarsus Club. The only evidence that Aaron and Jim can find of the group's existence is a Time Magazine article written by "Mark Tucker" in the 1960's.

They track down Tucker who tells them that the piece was intended to be an major expose on Tarsus until the article was neutered by his editor and he was black-listed for his efforts. He goes on to say that Tarsus is steeped in an ancient mystery religion which worships a bull-headed deity named Mithras. These secret pagan ceremonies also serve as networking opportunities to nudge the planet towards the group's ultimate goal of establishing a one-world government.

When Tucker gives Aaron and James the chance to infiltrate one of these clandestine meetings, the two reluctantly agree. Pretty soon the pair discover that there's a price to be paid for their curiosity and they're subjected to unimaginable terrors.   

While loitering around on Netflix I have a tendency to binge-watch documentaries so finding and watching The Conspiracy was probably inevitable. Although it took me a few minutes I eventually figured out that I was watching a docu-drama in the vein of The Blair Witch Project or REC. This illusion lingered as long as it did primarily because the film's real writer/director Christopher MacBride was quick to serve up a tantalizing blend of conspiracy theory and conspiracy fact.

Here are some examples:
  • The Military Commissions Act "allows U.S. citizens to be detained in undisclosed locations indefinitely". Very potentially
  • "Bill H.R. 645 authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to set up a network of FEMA camps to intern U.S. citizens in the case of a national emergency." Okay, well, apparently this is a possibility
  • "FEMA conducts training exercises for clergymen on how they can help the government quell dissent in the case of the enactment of martial law." Um, "training exercises" might be a stretch but there are reports of this happening. 
  • "The key is the Federal Reserve! The U.S. Government is assured so-called financial stability,
    because the Fed can just print more money out of thin air, but the government's always gonna be in debt to the Fed." Well, this one's definitely true.    
  • "Every single thing you do on the Internet is monitored." Given Edward Snowden's recent whistle-blowing about the NSA only an oblivious moron wouldn't believe this one.     
  • "The...*quote-unquote* plane crash at The Pentagon...the footage from over 100 cameras was confiscated, and the only piece of film we see shows an explosion, but no plane." 
  • "The head of security in Pakistan (General Mahmoud Ahmed) wires $100,000 to Mohamed Atta just prior to the 9/11 attacks. Then on the morning of the attacks, Ahmed is in Washington...why is the guy who bankrolled 9/11 meeting with the CIA before the attacks?"  Turns out this is inexplicably true.
  • "World War I, 1913. It's a fact that Woodrow Wilson's senior advisor, Edward House, deliberately sent a passenger ship, the RMS Lusitania, into German-controlled waters with the intention that it be hit by a U-boat, which it was, and that brings America into World War I."  Although I'm skeptical about this one historian and former British naval intelligence officer Patrick Beesly is convinced that some sort of chicanery took place.
  • "Gulf of Tonkin! Two U.S. boats are attacked by three Vietnamese boats, and that's what brings the U.S. into the Vietnam conflict. In 2005, the NSA releases a classified document that states the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened!" This one is definitely true. Hell, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara openly admitted this in the 2003 documentary Fog of War.  
  • Did J.F.K. actually warn us about the dangers of "secret societies" just two years before he was murdered? Oh, you better believe that shit is real.   
What's even more incredible is that the really bizarre stuff also has some basis in reality. The fictional Tarsus Club at the heart of the film is an amalgam of several elite and secretive outfits, such as the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, Skull & Bones, the Freemasons, the Illuminati and a slew of others. Hell, MacBride even cribbed the film's climax from Alex Jones, who famously infiltrated Bohemian Grove back in 2000.

So, do all of these links prove that there's some sort of over-arching global conspiracy? Not really. I went through my own "red pill" moment a few years back and came to the conclusion that a small cadre of rich assholes probably does rule the world but they're probably not nearly as organized as MacBride's paranoid nightmare would have us believe.

My main motivation for linking to all of that freaky shit was to drive home just how feasible the film's basic premise is. For a good five or ten minutes I was convinced that I was watching a legitimate documentary. However, as soon as I saw Terrance "crazed loner" apartment, wallpapered with newspaper headlines, I knew that something was up. My suspicions quickly deepened thanks to James and Aaron's OCD-like predilection to video capture every thing they say and do. Sorry, but the last thing documentary film-makers want to do is document is themselves. Finally, when the fictional Tarsus Club reared its horny head I knew full-well that I was witnessing a rather clever and well-made artifice.

Aaron Poole and James Gilbert do a pretty decent job as our two leads, but they aren't perfect. And honestly, in order to really knock something like this out of the park, the performances have to be absolutely note-perfect. That's why The Blair Witch Project is still one of the best docu-dramas to date since the kids in that movie had no clue what they were being subjected to and most of their dialogue was inadvertently ad-libbed. Of the main cast, Alan Peterson almost fooled me into believing that Terrance was a real person before he went MIA.    

Some viewers might be put off by the film's deliberately slow pace but I think that the story unfolds very naturally. If I didn't know any better I'd say that Christopher MacBride probably fell down the conspiracy rabbit-hole himself and the script was likely inspired by his own epiphany. Having his characters crash a Tarsus meeting Alex Jones-style feels like vicarious living and a natural extension of the plot.

As such, the film has a creepy, slow-burn quality that makes all of this insanity seem strangely plausible. The very same bicycle-bound spook that haunted Terrance starts to shadow Jim and Aaron. After procuring their tie-clip mini-cameras, the two are pursued by an ominous-looking SUV that ends up entrenched outside of their apartment. As soon as our protagonists start sniffing around the Tarsus compound they immediate draw the persistent curiosity of the be-suited Green Man. Even though his face is completely blurred out, its not hard to tell that veteran Canadian character actor Damon E. White is behind the digital mask.

A healthy awareness of its own budgetary limits isn't the only thing thing makes The Conspiracy so feasible. The movie's low-fi visual style also helps considerably. A huge chunk of the film's surreptitious second half is captured via the aforementioned tie clip cameras, meaning that our peripheral vision is limited to a fuzzy port-hole of claustrophobic dread. Admittedly this doesn't exactly make for a visually arresting experience, but it certainly adds to the tense atmosphere, especially during the ultra-unnerving Eyes Wide Shut-style initiation sequence.  

Audiences might also be let down by the film's "more whimper then bang" finale but think its thematically well in step. Frankly it's a lot more unnerving and realistic to hear a Tarsus legal representative and official mouthpiece try to re-assure us that everything is perfectly fine, while still confirming the dubious nature of their "benevolent' agenda. After all, one should think that blatant, wholesale murder would draw unwanted public attention to the machinations of a secret society.

On a completely superficial level The Conspiracy is a great example of budgetary constraints inspiring creativity. Thanks to a clever premise and a modest execution, MacBride and company have crafted a pretty decent little thriller. Clearly found footage / docu-drama style films don't have to suck if you stay within the boundaries of the format, exploit the power of suggestion and avoid the temptation to over-reach.

More importantly, the subject matter might very well resonate with you long after the credits roll.

     Tilt: up.

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