Paranoia Feels Real

The Conspiracy
(Canada, 86 min.)
Written and directed by Christopher McBride
Starring: Aaron Poole, Jim Gilbert, Alan Peterson, Bruce Clayton, Julian Richings.
Aaron Poole and Jim Gilbert in The Conspiracy. Photo courtesy eOne Films.

Chris: You know, there's a word for people who think everyone is conspiring against them.
C.W.: I know, perceptive.
-The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (Woody Allen, 2001)
Take a walk downtown and one is bound to see some nutjob with a sign and a megaphone. “Blame the government!” “You’re being brainwashed!” “The revolution won’t be on Facebook!” scream the seemingly loony soothsayers. The mad prophets of the sidewalks are fascinating folks. Where they get their ideas, or the time and the means to pursue them, is a mind-boggler itself. Listening to what they say and then choosing whether to believe them or shrug and walk to Starbucks, is a whole other conundrum in itself. Two filmmakers chose to listen, though, and their raving conspiracy theorist proved to be startlingly perceptive.

That man connecting the dots is Terrance (aka Alan Peterson), the subject of a documentary by actors Aaron Poole (The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh) and Jim Gilbert (“The Tudors”). Terrance seems like a nutter as he explains to the filmmakers all sorts of strange coincidences linking top level-government officials and corporations to historical milestones such as 9/11 and the JFK assassination. Terrance seems less crazy, however, when he suddenly disappears one day during production.

The filmmakers decide that the Terrance’s vanishing act might provide the ultimate story arc for their documentary. Either the man was wrong and he skipped town, or he was right and he was forced to be silent.

Using a mockumentary aesthetic and structure to capture the sprawling subculture of conspiracy theories, The Conspiracy shows how obsession goes viral in the digital age. Writer/director Christopher McBride offers a convincing piece on post-9/11 paranoia. The documentary style—it can’t really be called a “found footage film” given the final outcome of the story—is seamlessly constructed. Archival footage and spot-on character actors playing talking heads add to the wild theories spun by Terrance. As one figure notes, the intrigue of conspiracy theories lies in the difficulty it takes to debunk them. Find two seemingly related details and one can fill in the gap using any interpretative leap imaginable. This jump is enabled almost hyperbolically now that the Internet has exploded access to information both true and false.

The thrill of the putting the puzzle together in The Conspiracy holds up surprisingly well when Aaron and Jim’s investigation leads them down terrain that is less than plausible. Terrance’s trail of newspaper clippings, YouTube leads, and other circumstantial evidence points the filmmakers toward a Skull and Bones-type society known as the Tarsus Club, which rigs major world events in anticipation of a new world order. A layer of the believability is removed once The Conspiracy looks to the Tarsus Club, but the seamless construction of the documentary form makes the filmmakers’ investigation a gripping bare bones affair that puts the viewer in the thick of some bizarre and unpredictable behaviour.

McBride smartly avoids a nauseating Blair Witch aesthetic and never lets the conceit of the Conspiracy become overwhelmed by shaky, dizzying camerawork. The final act of the film is especially well constructed with McBride and cinematographer Ian Anderson capturing Aaron and Jim’s covert footage from grainy first-person point-of-view of Steadicams rigged to double as hidden cameras. The music by Darren Baker fuels the suspense, especially during the heart-pounding depiction of the Tarsus Club’s Kubrickian rituals, yet it never intrudes on the documentary aesthetic.

The mockumentary style of the film, while consistently effective, might play best with international audiences. Unlike other mock-docs such as, say, Best Day Ever, which adds a layer of ambiguity to the found footage style by using unfamiliar actors, the dramatization of The Conspiracy is often visible even though the actors are playing “themselves”. While Poole and Gilbert aren’t yet big name stars, they’re still familiar. One can even point out Canadian cinema’s creepy dude Julian Richings as an eerie member of the Tarsus Club even though his face is completely blurred out; however, that’s certainly a sign of the actor’s impressive screen presence. The performances are nevertheless convincing and they inject a sense of believability to The Conspiracy.

Aaron becomes obsessed with the intricate web the film is spinning, so The Conspiracy becomes less about the implications of Terrance’s hypothesis and more about the thrill of solving a labyrinthine mystery. If the line between truth and fiction becomes clearer as The Conspiracy progresses, though, the paranoia always feels real thanks to the earnestness of the film’s appropriation of documentary form. Both a parody of and a commentary on the subculture of weirdoes who are fascinated by the invisible collusion of the world’s most powerful players, The Conspiracy creates a tangible sense of authenticity through the filmmaking process. Like the elaborate ramblings of the bag lady on the street, there’s an air of truth to The Conspiracy even if one fully buys it.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Conspiracy plays in Ottawa at Empire Kanata until August 15th.