It’s easier to see the series’s blind spots when it’s viewed as a companion piece with a new Starz series on the same subject, the finale of which airs tonight. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult undercuts The Vow’s approach. Its directors interview cult experts in tandem with former NXIVM members to better understand Raniere’s tactics. The Starz series also includes information so pertinent to understanding NXIVM that it seems inexcusable for The Vow to omit it. Before watching Seduced, I had seen the particulars of the workshop I took (14-hour days, no alcohol, no snacking, no painkillers for headaches) as quirks designed to impress upon participants the importance of self-discipline, rather than coercive techniques to make them more psychologically and emotionally pliable. My own account of the course was incomplete, because my ability to interpret it critically had been fundamentally manipulated and impaired. The same thing is true of The Vow.
The blessing and the curse of The Vow is the footage it has to draw upon. Like many a megalomaniac before him, Raniere apparently wanted his every breath, utterance, and stilted performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to be captured on camera for the benefit of future generations studying his influence. When Vicente left NXIVM in 2017, he took with him more than a decade’s worth of Raniere on tape, and Noujaim and Amer use as much of the footage as they possibly can. Viewers see Raniere at volleyball practice in a tie-dye shirt and short shorts, his straggly ponytail subdued by a sweatband. We hear him philosophize on art (“just an excuse for people who can’t do”), pain (“the more pain we feel, the more we feel alive in a body”), and abuse (“a made-up human construct”). We see how he greets every woman he meets—by kissing them on the mouth. Glimpsed in these out-of-context fragments, Raniere seems not dangerous so much as absurd, less cult leader than creepy camp counselor.
Virtually everything else in The Vow is filtered through the experiences of three fairly high-profile members who left NXIVM in 2017: Edmondson, Vicente, and Vicente’s wife, Bonnie Piesse, an actor and musician. The Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, who says she unwittingly helped recruit her own daughter India when she took her to an introductory NXIVM event, also appears in the show, as she grows more and more concerned about India’s health and welfare under Raniere’s thumb. But the viewer’s first impressions of NXIVM come as Vicente, Edmondson, and Piesse try to explain what attracted them to the organization, with cameras following them from their initial disaffection in 2017 through Raniere’s arrest a year later. For Vicente, a filmmaker with grandiose ideas about changing the world, the promise of professional success hooked him. “It’s almost like [Raniere’s] showing me the movie version of what I could be like,” he recalls, reverently.