Rating: 2.5 out of 5
The Vow is undeniably addled in a haze of its own facts and testimony. In an effort to tell a captivating, thorough story about a “sex-cult” called NVXIM (pronounced as nexium)the series becomes over-obsessed with arriving at new angles and positions at which to approach the narrative. The ambiguity it creates is dangerous, never quite settling on a solid opinion about the despicable cult leader at the head of NVXIM, Keith Rainere. The nine episodes that comprise The Vow are often meandering and unevenly paced, however, the filmmakers (Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim) front and back-load the most engaging information while the middle-sections are usually devoted to either repeating information or providing more insight on a specific character’s journey, whose respective paths to NVXIM are largely the same.
Seldom do these repetitive stories reveal any fresh insights, they are often in service of flattening the story, diminishing the utility one of its most frequently circulated questions: how is it that seemingly normal people fall prey to the power and intrigue of such a diminutive, blatantly unoriginal cult guru; never quite arriving at an answer to the question because the filmmakers lack the bravery and investigative skills to cross into that territory. So The Vow is a perfectly watchable, frequently aggravating entry into the “true-crime” genre whose moments of poignancy are undermined by an attempt to make a “series”: the cliffhanger is disingenuous, Catherine Oxenberg is just as fake and phony as Rainere (she brought her daughter to the cult!) and outside of Bonnie and Nippy, the main crew of Mark Vincente and Sarah Edmondson, while undeniably traumatized, often come across as if they are trying to “get ahead” of the story and control some narrative, which is almost sickeningly alike the methods which Rainere employed to have complete agency over his perverted, distorted world-view just in an obviously less toxic and harmful context. Moments of lucidity strike in this documentary like a thunderous hammer, but they are all too infrequent and often diluted.
The first three episodes of The Vow are striking and hooking. Hearing Edmondson recount her initial seduction into NVXIM’s self-help-business-elite-bullshit is an interesting introduction because of how innocuous she and Vincente articulate the cult to be; her’s more so than Vincente just because she remained at a distance from Rainere because her role was solely focused on recruitment, there is more of an “everyman” quality to her story, and her aspirations to be an actress are a common thread amongst the members of NVXIM, also the filmmakers do Vincente the service of leaving out just how much he “knew” until the very end of the series, not to make him more culpable than her, just there were a myriad of red-flags for Vincente where there were just a handful for Sarah and her reaction at alarming behavior like branding was nearly instantaneous unlike his which took many years to breakthrough the brainwashing. Unlike Wild, Wild Country which albeit flawed, immediately begins recounting the story from multiple and varied perspectives so that you have to parcel objectivity and subjectivity apart from each other, Edmondson and Vincente dominate the beginning of the tale. Both of them were high-ranking members at NVXIM, Vincente himself one of the heads of NVXIM’s male-focused group, which was a prime outlet for Rainere’s public and (thanks in part Vincente) highly-documented misogyny, this immediately positions the story from a compromised outlet, which hopefully the STARZ follow-up documenting India Oxenberg defecting will be the missing link in the frayed story.
As the series goes on the nature of Vincente’s and Edmondson’s roles in the cult are slowly revealed and as a viewer it can be a bit blindsiding. The filmmakers attempt to brush off their responsibility of holding their subjects accountable by allowing them to cop-out completely as “victims” which while not untrue, because these people faced mental and physical destitution that no person should have have to experience, they are consistently allowed to disassociate from the part of themselves that recruited and encouraged others to join, leading many to tragic, brutal circumstances of abuse, manipulation and spiritual degradation at the hands of Rainere’s philosophies and methods. The story perhaps would have flourished in crueler more deft hands, instead it withers under this soft light, forcing the players to partake in the heavy emotional lifting. In particular Vincente and Bonnie. The most powerful scene comes when Catherine Oxenberg is engaging in some of her standard tactics of snidely demeaning those around her (if I were India, a positivity group would’ve seemed like a welcome reprieve from my exhausting, superficial and gossipy mother) and Vincente snaps on her. Catherine says she could never imagine how Vincente would let Bonny sleep on the floor because Rainere told her she had to do it as “penance”, how that possibly made sense to them. It’s on the filmmakers that they don’t hold Oxenberg accountable in this moment for re-traumatizing the two of them on screen, it’s a frankly disgusting oversight that is saved only by Vincente’s earnest regret and care for his spouse.
The Vow is a failure which I endured on the strength of the facts alone, which the filmmakers did little to aid me in determining how I should feel about. By the end, the series undergoes a strange metamorphosis in setting up a season two. In a similar manner to Leaving Neverland in how it was never about the victims but Michael Jackson’s legacy, The Vow centers it’s conclusion solely on Rainere, revealing what we suspected all along, this was never the victims story but merely setting up context for his. It’s like the filmmakers themselves, in culling through the footage, have fallen prey to Rainere’s hot-air. This is developed in a reverse manner of HBO’s Capturing the Fieldmans whose “selective hearing” painted two pedophiles as misunderstood and wrongly imprisoned. Where that film front-loaded it’s narrative with condemning facts and then stuffed the end with conjecture, dispute, uncertainty and emotional clarity that was supposed to overshadow the lacking investigative work put in by the team and the clear bias they formed within their research. This series begins with a skewed view, attempting to allow the story to speak for itself, but never quite recovers an established feeling of being in charge of the various moving threads, it’s often just as subject to the changing, shifting wants and desires of the story as the players within it. The Vow wishes to expose the truth behind this “sex-cult” but even in the nature of that phrase, it grossly exaggerates, romanticizes, and misconstrues the story to insatiable proportions, as if the filmmakers suspected a lack within that they needed to course correct. What we get is a nine-episode series that could have been four or should have been nine, made with more discerning, cunning, and sympathetic hands.