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‘The Vow’ Review: HBO’s Documentary on the NXIVM Cult Takes Its Time

"The Vow" should inspire conversation. It just takes a few episodes to get there.

Sarah Edmondson

Sarah Edmondson in “The Vow”

HBO

If you’re an “inside Hollywood” person, one who scours the blind item gossip community, then you probably heard about NXIVM before most people did. It wasn’t until the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement that most people learned the name of Keith Rainere, the guru/sex trafficker and his band of followers, many of whom were prominent actresses during the early aughts. But NXIVM remains a shadowy organization and it’s unclear how HBO’s nine-part documentary series “The Vow” will elucidate things for everyone.

It’s easy to understand why NXIVM has sailed under the radar in the world of cult fascination. It’s not as well-connected as Scientology nor is it as outlandish in its philosophies (or as deadly) compared to Heaven’s Gate. NXIVM is like if Goop and Scientology had a baby. As “The Vow” lays out, it started out as more of a lifestyle and wellness organization, aimed at teaching people how to shed their fears and anxieties as a means of reaching their full potential. Founder Rainere, a small, unassuming dude with a head of hair to get envious over, wasn’t selling himself as a god nor was he actively attempting to skew recruitment of men over women.

Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim value quality over quantity, relying on a small group of defected followers to tell the story for the majority of the nine episodes. One of the first interview subjects is actress Sarah Edmondson, who initially expresses skepticism over NXIVM. When the group brings out sashes, which followers wear regularly to show what level they were at, she wonders “what the hell I’d gotten myself into.” New members are introduced slowly throughout the nine episodes, with Edmondson, director Mark Vicente, and Vicente’s wife Bonnie Piesse driving the majority of the narrative.

Edmondson says she was told it wasn’t until the third session that things started to make sense, and that holds true for “The Vow.” The first two episodes present a lot of dense information regarding NXIVM’s philosophy, the organizational structure and where Raniere fits in. There are often moments that feel re-enacted, which often aren’t clear. Vicente talks about filming a semi-documentary/narrative feature about Raniere and NXIVM and that would blend fact and fiction, only to have a later scene of him and a crying Piesse comforting each other. Is this a re-eanctment of their breakup? An actual moment of her decision to leave NXIVM? The first two episodes also have moments where the subjects will stare off into the middle distance in a desert as a means of showing their feelings towards the group in the early stages.

Mark Vicente, Sarah Edmondson

Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson in “The Vow”

Once things take a turn and the group starts discussing DOS — a sect within the cult — that the pretentious theatrics subside and “The Vow” becomes a straightforward documentary. Once things ramp up “The Vow” becomes as fascinating as expected, but it’s unclear if an audience will stick around to see that assumption bear fruit. That being said, the discussion of DOS and how NXIVM became the brainwashing cult it’s been presented as is terrifying. DOS is the organization within NXIVM created by “Smallville” actress Allison Mack — presented in the doc as one of Rainere’s most ardent followers. The secret society of women were presented as sex objects for Raniere and showed their devotion by branding his initials on their pubic regions.

Hearing Edmondson speak of this time is haunting, and even more so knowing that it was only once the Harvey Weinstein case broke that a newspaper like The New York Times would agree to publish the article they’d been working on about it. Underneath the smiling cult story is really another tale of how women are gaslit and their concerns pushed under the rug. Rainere, heard in several recorded conversations with women, often engaged in sexual jokes and innuendo with his followers that, on the surface looks innocuous, but is indicative of a predatory pattern.

Even more eye-opening is hearing from Vicente and Anthony Ames, the husbands of Piesse and Edmondson, respectively. Hearing about what his wife went through is particularly hard for Ames, who gets candid about his role as a protector and how he failed to do enough to stop what he saw. Too often cult stories rely on male responses and it’s thought-provoking seeing a man who, in NXIVM, was actually part of a men’s group aimed at promoting leadership — and now understands that this isn’t his story and still feels he missed an opportunity to practice what he preached.

And yet as important as “The Vow” is with regards to women’s issues, it still feels like an “inside Hollywood” story. To many it’ll look like the story of entitled elites joining a club that got out of control, for others, it’s another example of makeshift philosophers taking advantage of power. Either way, “The Vow” should inspire conversation. It just takes a few episodes to get there.

Grade: C+

“The Vow” premieres Aug. 23 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.

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