Marling's Bold Tone Heard in Obscure 'Sound of My Voice'

Directed by: Zal Batmanglij, Runtime: 85 minutes
Grade: B

Sound of My Voice might not be the right choice if someone's wanting a straight-shooting critique on the nature of cults, despite having a few penetrating things to say on the matter. The practices shown at the beginning trigger alarming responses: blindfolded and restrained inductees, automobile trips to an unmarked location, and boundary-breaking worship to a person connected to something beyond the realm of possibility. One might expect the truly bizarre -- and bizarre people -- once they're surrounded by the eerie atmosphere in the closed-off basement, but that's not entirely the case here; the mental manipulation and awareness-broadening activities reveal a gray area that's more subtle, sinister, and persuasive than that. That's the contrast Zal Batmanglij creates in this tense psychological study, where complex writing and disarming performances ask one to ponder the motives of a prophetic fabric-draped woman who claims to be from the future, and to try and comprehend the incomprehensible.

Our eyes and ears are Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), two aspiring documentary filmmakers and romantic partners making an expose on cults, who get hooked up with a small but mounting group that believes they're harboring a woman, Maggie, delivered from the year 2054. After they've thoroughly scrubbed their bodies down and changed into white linens before entering the lair, Maggie honors the devotion of the new recruits with her story of awakening, visualized through flashbacks of a dirty hotel room and desolate walks through the street of San Fernando Valley. Sound of My Voice then focuses on how the pair digests what they experience over time in the dimly-lit basement; Peter's cynical outlook is informed by his family's storied history with cults, while Lorna's experience with redemption and her new-age perspective lends a necessary open mind to their examination. Their boundaries are pushed and their trust challenged, and the true power -- and fallibility -- of a woman like Maggie slowly emerges.

Most of Sound of My Voice takes place between the walls of the basement, a disquieting setting created through the indie film's shoestring budget. The sparse, low-cost surroundings heighten the ominous atmosphere during Maggie's "teachings", as the low lighting and colorless walls get the point across that it's both isolated and transitory in nature. Danger can be felt at almost all points, achieved through subtle livewire cinematography that captures the devout faces and seclusion created in the locked-away sanctuary, yet what we slowly discover is that it's not physical jeopardy that it conveys, but mental and emotional. Shots of Maggie walking with her breathing machine, of her upper-tier minions tending her garden of safe-to-eat food, and of the cultists willingly surrendering their blood for her needs leave one absorbed in the web of deception. It's baffling that they believe what they do, which becomes pertinent as Peter and Lorna acclimate to their surroundings -- and are forced to prove their loyalty.

Initially, it appears as if Sound of My Voice will take shape as a situational thriller that unravels around the disturbing nature of blind belief, driven by the documentarians' close calls with exposure and mysterious interaction with the lady of the future. The intelligent script, co-written by Zal Batmanglij and Another Earth's Brit Marling, reaches deeper than that; they're concerned with the psychology involved as well, both of the cynics looking to discredit those outlandish beliefs and of the people who jump through hoops in belief of Maggie's assertions. Cleverly, they make the outlandish practices of a cult appear more relevant in context than they sound on paper, from the reasoning behind a ridiculous secret handshake to why Maggie forces her followers to ingest (and puke up) certain foods and act foolish. It creates this air of mystery about what's amassing before Peter and Lorna's eyes, especially about the destination to the "salvation" Maggie promises, where red herrings involving pistols, secretive government investigators, and a specific little girl named Abigail are engineered for varied interpretations.

Maggie's the lynchpin here, this obfuscated presence in Sound of My Voice who convolutes Peter and Lorna's outlook with contradictions and emotional exploitations -- as well as an odd air of indifference over whether her followers believe in her or not. Brit Marling gives her presence a curious sort of power; the actress and co-writer shows an intense understanding of what'd give her such command over others, and her shifts between earnest prophet and aggressive doom-giver to her doubters heighten that enigmatic presence. There's an observable shift in her manner when she goes on the offensive, and watching as she systematically reaches into the past of one of her cult members, dismantle it, and both reveal their weakness and attempt to embolden their belief becomes a captivating exercise in emotional horror, as well we a captivating showcase of the actress' talent. It also raises questions about Maggie's motivations, namely: if she doesn't feel the need for her followers to believe her, then what reason does she have in aggressively exploiting their emotions? Maybe she's just that good.

A lot is revealed about their white-veiled leader, yet Maggie's origin is intentionally clouded in a fog of speculation that avoids concrete answers, even after some soul-searching and labored dot-connecting. That's part of the grand design of it all, though, similar to Donnie Darko, where components of faith, science-fiction, and skepticism converge into an unsolvable puzzle that demands personal interpretation, and it's both a mesmerizing and frustrating piece of work because of it. But Sound of My Voice also runs the risk of undermining its viewpoints with a stubbornly ambiguous ending, replacing one set of questions about the underlying truth with another -- all at the tap of a wrist. From the first moments that Peter and Lorna descend into the low-lit basement, freshly bathed and blindfolded in ritualistic fashion, we're drawn into their exploration of how a cult exploits its believers with pop-philosophical parlor tricks. The mystery emphasized at the end, however, takes that perception to a place where one considers whether there's a hint of possibility to it all, and the jury's still out on whether the pieces fit together well-enough to merit such a departure for the sake of theory.

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