Fantastic Fest 2012 Review: The Conspiracy
Review by Eric Lefenfeld
This should just be gotten out of the way upfront, given the violent reaction it might provoke in certain circles: The Conspiracy is partially a found footage film. More specifically, it’s one part found footage and three parts faux-documentary. If you’re one to dismiss anything of the sort outright, then keep on walking, but know that you’re missing out on a gem.
Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) are documentary filmmakers. Their subject is Terence (Alan C. Petersen), embodying all the stereotypes that have come to be associated with the conspiracy theorist set. Burly and long-haired, he stands in busy intersections with a megaphone, spouting his theories to mostly disinterested passersby. Of course, a wall in his apartment is plastered over with a giant collage of interlocking newspaper articles detailing the intricate nature of his perceived worldwide conspiracy. After filming for a few weeks, Terence disappears without warning, his apartment ransacked. The only thing of note left behind is his vast collection of articles. The filmmakers begin to pick up where Terence left off, initially more out of curiosity than anything else. As the pieces start coming together, though, the lines between observer and participant quickly become blurred, and both filmmakers fall down the ever-more menacing rabbit hole.
The film successfully toes a fine line, staying tethered and relatable while never failing to ratchet up the dread. One only needs to do a quick Google search to see that the conspiracy theory universe is vast, but writer/director Christopher MacBride wisely chooses to focus on a facet of the movement that’s grounded in reality, for the most part. As opposed to the more outlandish ideas floating around out there (Lizardmen, anyone?), The Conspiracy takes its inspiration from the theories surrounding Bohemian Grove and the like, namely that wealthy men of power gather every year in the hopes of furthering a nefarious New World Order. Are there annual, secret meetings in which powerful men of government and industry partake in archaic rituals? Yes. They might not be as sinister as some might suggest, but the inkling of truth at the heart of everything is pitched perfectly in the context of a documentary, fictional as it may be. There’s enough real-world basis that the film never goes too far over the top even as it inches its way into more overt thriller territory .
The first two-thirds are presented as a relatively straightforward documentary — lots of graphics, stock footage, and talking heads. At least a couple of these interview subjects are non-actors, which only furthers cements this air of authenticity. The last third, with its introduction of hidden cameras strapped to the filmmakers’ bodies, tips over into found footage style, but it makes complete sense in the context of the story. It never feels like an easy cop-out for ramping up tension as the film approaches its climax. These men are investigative filmmakers; it would stick out more if they weren’t wearing cameras while going undercover.
The film might not be concerned with rigorously sticking to its documentary format, but at this point in the genre’s cycle, that really isn’t a problem. The Blair Witch Project both created (within the context of the Internet, at least) and ruined the whole “Is it real” vibe in these types of films, so why bother with a rigorous deception that no one will buy in the first place? Dogme 95 this is not; it’s silly to fault a film like this for “breaking the rules.” It’s the combination of cinematic flourishes (a gently creepy score, certain camera setups) and a relatively grounded story that make the movie work.
Faux-docs/found footage have become the genre whipping boy as of late, unfairly garnering a reputation as an easily jumped-on bandwagon for lazy filmmakers who need a sellable gimmick. While this might be true in some cases (although, it should be noted, not any more or less true than with other sub-genres), one only needs to look at The Conspiracy to see that there’s still plenty of life in this supposedly used-up well.