A few years ago, I found myself trapped in a conversation with a person who was absolutely convinced that the events of 9/11 were part of a vast government conspiracy. I made the mistake of dismissing this theory to his face, and was subsequently bombarded with a host of barely-connected historical anecdotes, suspect physics lessons, economic statistics and other related thoughts. I was no more convinced at the end of his rant than I was at the beginning, but I'll admit to being a little amazed at how much effort he had put into convincing himself that there was a mountain of evidence to support his suspicions. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I've ever encountered a half-hearted conspiracy theorist. It makes sense, I suppose: if you really believe that the majority of humanity has had the wool pulled over their eyes by some sort of secret society, you don't just shrug it off and go about your day.
The Conspiracy understands this, and uses that understanding to craft a clever slice of found-footage horror. Many horror films are built on the premise that the things we believe are wrong. This one is built on the premise that the things crazy people believe might be right. Is the movie irresponsible because it indulges the notion that truthers, birthers, anti-vaxxers and other kooks might kinda-sorta be on to something? Is Close Encounters of the Third Kind irresponsible because it indulges the notion that people who believe in alien abductions might be on to something? The subject matter is meaty stuff, though I'll admit I could have done with two or three fewer shots of the 9/11 attacks.
The premise is a smart one: filmmakers Aaron (Aaron Poole, The Samaritan) and Jim (James Gilbert, Saw VI) set out to make a documentary about conspiracy theories, and find themselves getting swept up in the feverish current of those theories as a result. Their central subject is Terrence (Alan C. Peterson, Shooter), who spends his days pinning newspaper clippings to the walls of his home and shouting at people through a megaphone (he's the type of guy who's fond of the world “sheeple”). Terrence's outlandish claims aren't particularly convincing, but he seems firmly committed to them and certainly proves a compelling documentary subject. Then, he disappears.
After spending several weeks trying and failing to find Terrence, the filmmakers start taking a closer look at their subject's beliefs. Montages mix and match presidential speeches, historical events, eerie symbols and famous landmarks as Darren Baker's insinuating score hums and throbs in the background. It isn't long before Aaron begins to grow obsessed with Terrence's theories, and a detailed search leads him to an old Time article about a secretive organization known as The Tarsus Club. Then... well, that's all you need to know for now. Suffice it to say that this all leads somewhere rather intriguing. The main characters aren't particularly compelling (they reminded me of the generic VICE bros depicted in Ti West's otherwise exceptional documentary-style horror film The Sacrament), but this isn't a character-driven film.
I'm not a fan of the found-footage format, but at least The Conspiracy finds a way to justify it at every turn (unlike something like Cloverfield, in which a camera keeps rolling long after any sane person would have turned it off). It helps that the the quality of the imagery varies from scene to scene, as we shift from slick, polished interview footage to slightly shaky handheld footage to grimy, semi-incomprehensible footage shot with a stealthy tie clip camera. The low-quality footage actually adds considerably to the tension of the grim, portentous third act, as our inability to get a clear, definitive look at what's happening leaves room for ambiguity and doubt.
The film was written and directed by Christopher MacBride, who manages to take the addictive nature of conspiracy theories seriously without overestimating their validity. It's clear that one has to make a number of challenging mental leaps and ignore basic logic to reach some of these conclusions, but once you cross that barrier the possibilities are limitless. If you're searching for explanations for something you already believe to be true, you start seeing things everywhere. Consider the way members of various religions feel they see the hand of God in countless aspects of everyday life, or the way those who believe that President Obama is a communist find a way to interpret his decisions through that filter. The Conspiracy captures this mindset so effectively that you may well find yourself disappearing down a few internet rabbit holes afterwards. You know, just to get a better look at what those crazy people are going on about. The Tarsus Club isn't a real thing, right? Right?
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 84 minutes
Release Year: 2012