This HBO documentary series may be somewhat long-winded and over-padded, but it does place the spotlight firmly on a distressing case that raises our awareness of the evil of the world.
In February 2018, news broke that actress Allison Mack, known for her role as Chloe Sullivan in the hit series “Smallville,” had been arrested for her involvement in a sex trafficking ring. This was the first wake-up call in a case that was to affect other well-known faces from the world of entertainment and high society, and which would bring the spotlight to bear on the NXIVM sect. Up until this point, the sect had the reputation of a center for entrepreneurs who strived for professional motivation. This sect is the axis of the documentary series ‘The Vow’, a HBO production that reconstructs the history of NXIVM since its inception (during the first minutes of the pilot, in fact, nothing suggests that it is a sect), its presentation in society and the first wave of illustrious members.
The web of deception begins to come apart when one of its members, actress Sarah Edmondson, discovers that a secret society of women had been created to enslave newcomers (they even branded them during a ritual) and forced them to have sex with the leader, Keith Raniere. Edmondson brought this to the attention of her colleagues, filmmaker Mark Vicente and actress Bonnie Piesse (‘Star Wars’ saga), who gathered evidence that would culminate in becoming the seed of the judicial process and of the documentary itself.
‘The Vow’ begins as a journalistic chronicle and drifts towards a ghastly tale of the protagonists’ descent into hell. First, suffering torture and mobbing from the sect’s most powerful members, and then crashing headlong into the disbelief from both those in and around the organization itself, as well as certain journalists. The developing tone gets you hooked and horrified in equal proportions. The series eventually wains in terms of quality, mainly due to redundance and over dwelling on excessive recreations of some of the most morbid aspects of the story. In addition, at times it uses highly debatable dramatizations that actually subtract greatly from the narration of the events. But at the same time, it leaves you stunned that there are people so evil and so capable of suggesting to others without them being fully aware. In this sense, one of the story’s highlights is how it relentlessly explores the chiaroscuro of those who were eventually awoken from the nightmare (as such, the most terrifying moments are the interviews with the accusers) and makes a firm commitment to facing indifference towards events that happen close to us but of which, deep down, we would prefer to remain ignorant.
In the end, if NXIVM was capable of perpetrating these atrocities, it is only because we live in a world more prone to glorifying placebos than delving headlong into tackling problems. Another interesting aspect is its reflection on loneliness and managing success. Mack has become the visible face of this case, but the buck doesn’t stop there and instead involves a long list of people addicted to public recognition and the need to feel part of a whole. For this reason, Edmondson’s testimony is one of the most startling. Her gaze every time she hears herself recalling different events is the synthesis of trauma: having to accept the fact that a sect managed to captivate her and change her life forever.