The Vow’s gripping true crime story becomes something even more remarkable with Part 2

The true story of sadistic cult NXIVM continues with The Vow: Part 2 – streaming on Neon. Following up with its subjects, and introducing new faces to expand this dark story, Part 2 becomes something even more remarkable writes Katie Parker.

As popular as it is, true crime isn’t a genre that generally lends itself well to sequels—that’s just not how life (or the justice system) works. Yet from time to time, a story just keeps unfolding—and, in the case of The Vow: Part 2, becomes something even more remarkable.

Released in August 2020, at the height of the mid-pandemic true crime boom, The Vow saw filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer delve into the sordid goings-on within self-help organization turned surprisingly sadistic cult NXIVM. Now, the same team have followed up on their subjects for The Vow: Part 2, in which the case goes through the courts—and former followers grapple with the aftermath.

The story of The Vow was a weird one—and while vaguely familiar from news reports of a strange sadomasochistic cult in which Smallville’s Allison Mack ranked bizarrely high, there were even stranger truths to be absorbed and an incredibly dark history to unravel

Led by so-called ‘Vanguard’ Keith Raniere and his right-hand woman, NXIVM President Nancy Salzman, the organisation used the rhetoric of corporate self-improvement to build an exceptionally devoted following of people who believed it had changed their lives. From professional development to trauma, to conditions like Tourette’s syndrome, NXIVM had a solution to everything. Soon, it became sickeningly clear to a growing contingent of followers that something dark was simmering just beneath the surface. When, in 2017, it was revealed that female members of the group had formed DOS, a secret society that saw them enslave and brand one another with Raniere’s initials, NXIVM began to truly unravel.

It was around this time that Noujaim and Amer became aware of the group—and quietly diligently started documenting the escape efforts of a group of disillusioned members, all still grappling with the trauma of what they had experienced—and deathly afraid of retribution from Raniere.

With years worth of footage of Raniere captured by his former confidante Mark Vicente, and stunning access into the journey of its subjects, The Vow presented a stunningly compelling examination of cult programming that revealed universal and unsettling truths about human nature, full of characters you hoped to find out the fate of (#Markhive).

Ending with Raniere’s arrest and a slew of charges including sex trafficking, racketeering and forced labour laid against him and members of his all-female inner circle, it was clear that the story didn’t end there. Hinting that the filmmakers had, at long-last, gained access to the elusive Vanguard (from his prison cell mind you), we all waited with bated breath for the next installment.

Thank goodness then, that The Vow is finally back for Part 2—and, just when you thought you knew all there was to know about that crazy cult, Noujaim and Amer have an astonishing new story to tell.

Following Raniere’s trial through the eyes of old favourites—Mark, Bonnie, Sarah, Nippy and the gang are all back—along with new key players, like Raniere’s lawyer (who has already fallen under his spell), the government prosecutor, and a young New York Post reporter, Noujaim and Amer are also finally able to tell another side of the story—that of the women so devoted to Raniere that they were willing to do abhorrent things at his bidding.

Most renounce their former master, telling horrifying stories of controlling, abusive relationships with Raniere from which they could not escape. Some, like former Battlestar Gallactica actress Nikki Clyne, remain loyal, arguing that accusations of coercion are an insult to female autonomy.

Yet, while Keith was touted as this season’s most eagerly awaited guest (and he does feature, here and there, in smug audio clips decrying his own persecution), he is not the figure who makes The Vow: Part 2 such a mesmerizing, unsettling and ultimately devastating watch. Instead, it’s Nancy Salzman.

Serving for years as Raniere’s second in charge and speaking publicly here for the first time, Salzman is an extraordinary subject—and not just because she has the most terrifying sculpture ever made sitting pride of place in her living room.

With her own trial coming up, Salzman is candid, revealing and incredibly emotionally vulnerable—and as she cares for her elderly parents and reflects on her life, it is jarring to reconcile her with the crimes that she awaits trial for. Wildly more charismatic, likeable and sympathetic than Raniere, she lights up on camera yet remains something of an enigma throughout. Is her remorse sincere or is she just trying to save her own skin? Did she really not know what Keith was up to or where things went wrong? Is she the master of manipulation or, as she claims, so naive she needs to ask what BDSM stands for? As former NXIVM member Barbara Bouchey muses, “Keith, I can rationalise that he’s crazy, maybe a psychopath… But Nancy wasn’t crazy. Honestly, she puzzles me more than Keith”.

The diabolical thing about cults is that they make every participant complicit. In spending time with the women who didn’t leave NXIVM, many of whom became both victims and predators under Raniere’s influence, Noujaim and Amer explore something that is arguably even more harrowing than what we saw in 2020. Mark, Bonnie, Sarah et al. came to their senses and got out before it was too late—but what happened, and what will happen, to those that didn’t?

None of which is to say that Noujaim and Amer let anyone off the hook. The abuses described here are possibly more horrific than those previously made public, and the horror of what Raniere was intentionally doing—and what his followers did—is put in clear, plain focus. Stunning, sad and admirably nuanced, The Vow: Part 2 adds chilling new complexity to a truly gripping story.