For the uninitiated, de-programmers are surreptitious contractors hired by the families of loved ones who have been lost to cults. They illegally abduct the target and attempt to undo the brainwashing damage done by the sect. The hope is that everything is successful and they can be given a tearful homecoming and return to their normal lives. Director Daniel Kremer’s awkwardly named “Raise Your Kids on Seltzer” aims to tell a tale set in the very niche area of these cult de-programmers. A small pool that Sean Durkin’s tremendous “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011) also swam in. While that film dealt with a former cult member attempting to restart her life, “RYKOS” chronicles a married couple who deals in the clandestine world of extracting these young people. The title, while explained, is alienating and I can’t imagine having to repeat in endlessly at crowded, noisy film festival parties.
Similar to Durkin’s film, they both use elliptical editing and move forward and backward in time while unfolding the story. The similarities end there. Where “Martha” showed the inner workings of its agrarian cult, there are no cults in “RYKOS” and there is very little deprogramming. It is instead a profile of a marriage. Tessa (Penny Werner) & Terry (Jeff Kao) are the couple who’s previous career was as part of a successful team of cult de-programmers. Their new life now consists of corporate videography gigs (an enterprise I’d be shocked to find out the director didn’t have to do to make ends meet for a time). With the excitement of their previous life gone, their marriage suffers from passive aggressive glancing blows and frustration. Terry jumps when they have the chance to take “one last job”. Fifty thousand dollars to abduct and deprogram Chloe (Nancy Kimball) a young female cult member.
“RYKOS” is a film filled with trapdoors, dead ends, and red herrings. This wouldn’t be a negative if the film was a traditional noir or thriller, but it isn’t. It bursts at the seams with subplots, side characters, and scenes that lead nowhere. It makes the runtime of 96 minutes seem much longer. The press materials for the film strangely highlight Barry Newman (Vanishing Point) as big selling point. His role is one of the many fat areas in the film and is mostly contained to conversations on the phone.
Another problem the film has is finding a single unifying event. Early in the film, the couple is sent a letter from one of their past clients. It states that the girl they were hired to rescue recently committed suicide and named them as responsible in the note. This is odd because it isn’t the reason they quit and it doesn’t really affect their decision to take the final job. Another strange red herring is the backstory of how the two became de-programmers. Years ago, Terry was romantically involved with Tessa’s identical twin sister. When she became entangled in a cult, Terry joins Tessa to free her. Apparently they were both naturals and made it their career afterward. It’s such a nuanced idea that it’s surprising Kremer didn’t choose to make that film instead.
The talk of identical twins, cults, and any mystery behind their recent employer is all subterfuge. The heart of the film exists in the naturalistic dialogue and domestic details painted by Werner & Kao. It came as no surprise to discover the two leads collaborated on the story with the director. They make amazing choices with their characters and the collaborative writing process yields very specific moments. The scenes between them crackle with authentic intimacy. They play the married couple as complex individuals who are genuinely curious about each other and their dreams.
While “RYKOS” is an ambitious and sometimes unwieldy effort, it is grounded by strong editing, solid 2.35:1 cinematography, and most importantly by the profoundly moving performances.