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rochefort [Celluloid 09.24.12] thriller documentary

Two documentary filmmakers Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) set out to do a piece on "Terrance G." (Alan C. Peterson), a conspiracy theorist who has the usual modus operandi, e.g. walls covered in newspaper clippings, sidewalk sermons through a megaphone, an insistence that all of history's greatest cataclysms, wars, and oppression lead back to one central, organized but secret society. When Terrance suddenly disappears without a trace, Aaron refuses to stop the investigation and convinces a reluctant Jim, who has a family and more to lose, that Terrance was actually on the brink of making a plausible connection among a ton of seemingly unrelated incidents. Aaron himself cracks the code, and before long their skepticism gives way to paranoia and eventually terrified conviction. When a reclusive author comes forward and affirms that the ubiquitous secret society, the Tarsus Club, is a reality, Aaron and Jim decide to try and infiltrate their next meeting.

The "found footage" movie that pretty much jump-started the whole trend that continues to this day is obviously "The Blair Witch Project", and a large part of that film's initial success was the cleverness of a promotional campaign that made it unclear whether or not "Blair Witch" was, in fact, an actual documentary. These days, audiences are way too familiar with this approach, and even the claim in a movie's titles of "Inspired by a true story" doesn't carry the weight it once did. But now, with "The Conspiracy", we get a very different and very welcome riff on the formula. We're obviously watching something that is basically fiction, but that's not the point. The real burning question under everything isn't "Did this really happen?", but rather "Could this, in some form, already be happening?", and director Christopher MacBride uses our uncertainty to weave a fairly disturbing tapestry. The decision to pepper Aaron's and Jim's fictional journey with a veritable onslaught of persistent cultural conspiracy artifacts is not only brilliant but genuinely unnerving, so much so that by the end you may want to immediately head to the books to try and separate the concocted from the documented.

MacBride does a really good job of ramping up a steady crescendo of tension, and in terms of pacing is clearly drawing inspiration from "JFK" and "All the President's Men" (which is referenced directly in one scene). One thing that struck me is that neither Aaron or Jim is particularly charismatic at the film's outset; both have a vaguely smug hipster bent, but by the end I'd done a complete turnaround, and this is to the filmmakers' credit. The fear of the ominous "They" certainly does bring us together and put aside our petty differences, at least for an hour and a half. And what the viewer does with the unease he or she takes from the theater is his or her own business, of course, so I won't try and turn a review into a forum for my own beliefs or theories.

But, "The Conspiracy" is guaranteed to provoke talk, at least in some circles, and regardless of whether or not it's a conscientious whistle-blower or a cynical, cash-in prank (for the record, I'm not sure either way) it's always good to keep this particular discourse alive. After all, the worst case scenario might not be true, and the world's awfulness is just relatively random. But what if it's not? Where "The Conspiracy" excels is in how it compels us to consider if any of us would actually want to know the truth, no matter the cost.

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