Written & Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Starring: Christopher Denham, Brit Marling, and Nicole Vicius
MPAA: R – For Language Including Some Sexual References and Brief Drug Use]
There are coy movies, and then there’s Sound Of My Voice. Here is a film that is built entirely out of smoke and mirrors, wearing a thin yet tightly wrapped veil over its face. At the same time, though, that veil is slowly rising up, allowing you to peek inside before you realize that you can’t bend low enough to get a clear picture of what lies under it. Everytime you think you have a good sense of what is happening throughout Sound Of My Voice, a curveball is thrown at you that makes you reevaluate everything you’ve seen. The secrets in this movie have secrets of their own.
Now, read this synopsis and try to tell me with a straight face that this is not an incredibly fascinating premise, because there’s no way you could: We open with a pair of investigative journalists named Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) being cleaned, cuffed, and blind-folded as they’re transported to a mysterious house in the middle of the San Fernando valley. There, a mysterious man requires them to perform a ridiculously convoluted handshake as part of a secret password. The two of them are greeted by people in white robes all joining hands. We realize what’s going on: Peter and Lorna are being initiated into a cult.
Everyone then bows down to make way for the cult leader, named Maggie (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film), who is not what you expect. She is a mysterious young woman connected to oxygen tubes who speaks softly and quietly to her subjects. This isn’t your average, larger-than-life, bombastic cult-leader. Her conviction is quiet, and her authority is reserved. Maggie decides to explain herself to the new recruits: She is here on a mission, and all of her subjects will carry it out for her. She is here to prepare the world for the future…because she is from the future. Maggie claims to have time traveled from the year 2054, where a second civil war is raging on throughout America. Her presence here is more than just a message of what’s to come: It’s a warning.
We later learn that our two protagonists, Peter and Lorna, didn’t join the cult for typical reasons. They’re actually infiltrating it to make a documentary on the infamous cult, and see whether the enigmatic Maggie really is what she says she is, or has something to hide. Things are running smoothly until something happens: Peter starts falling under Maggie’s spell. Doubt from both sides starts to spill in and conflict each other in contrarian ways. Is Maggie really from the future? Is it all just a scam? If it is the latter, what is her purpose? If it is the former, then is she the key to something much bigger than anything anyone could’ve ever anticipated?
Love or hate Sound Of My Voice, this is one of the most brilliant examples of how low-budget filmmakers are able to embrace their limitations. Almost 85% of the film takes place in an ordinary basement, yet it encompasses so many different startling ideas: Time travel, destiny, conspiracies, mysterious children, and–most importantly of all–the nature of faith itself.
You see, Sound Of My Voice isn’t just a film about faith. So much more than just that, this is a movie that tests the faith of its audience. A movie like this pretty much requires active participation from the viewer. If you don’t stop to really think about it and ask yourself if, in this situation, you would find yourself joining Maggie’s side, picking faith over logic, then you’re not seeing it the “correct” way. What the movie does is indoctrinate the viewer. At first, it’s hard to believe in Maggie’s crazy story, but as the film progresses, you start getting more and more hints that she may very well be from the future. And just when you think you’re buying into her side, some counterpoints show up to upset your previous suspicions. This is why I think an open mind is needed before stepping into Sound Of My Voice. If you’re going to strictly pick one side and not even try to consider the other, it’s impact will be lessened.
Like many critics, I loved this year’s Cabin In The Woods for the ways it toyed with audience expectations by creating a new kind of “meta-narrative” the likes of which we’ve never seen in a film before. I’d honestly call Sound Of My Voice a “meta” movie too, but for different reasons. I’ve heard a few of the film’s detractors complain that they couldn’t get a good sense of the main character Peter’s inner conflict. I, however, think it’s supposed to be that ambiguous. The critics are right in saying that Peter isn’t much of a character, but that’s because he’s something else entirely: A surrogate for the audience. We are left in that state of conflicting values much like Peter is. The film is playing against the audience’s expectations of what “the truth” is meant to be, and while I don’t wish to spoil anything, I will say that the film wisely leaves “the truth” unanswered.
The main reason why we are able to buy into the cult’s fixations in the first place is Brit Marling. A film about cults requires an actor who can play a beyond-charismatic leader, someone who can draw the viewer in just as much as it can to the cult’s followers. Stephen Tobolowsky, who played KKK leader Clayton Townley in the film Mississippi Burning, once said that he got the part because he was “scary while not trying to be scary”. That is exactly what Brit Marling does with this role, and it’s honestly very spell-binding.
Usually, the typical way to play a cult-leader would be to go big and bombastic, like the final 10 minutes of There Will Be Blood. But Brit Marling is able lay down a sense of menace in an incredibly subtle way. She never goes over the top, never yells, and doesn’t demand the viewer’s attention. She is simply magnetic without ever trying to be. Her mannerisms are actually disquieting in their quietness. At the same time, though, there’s an underlying sense of mystery about her just itching your brain. You want to learn more about her; you want to know what her secret is; and in doing so, you want to follow every word she says just to get past the veil.
Her powerhouse performance is complemented by a rich, unsettling mood that brings unease and discomfort into every frame with almost nothing. There isn’t really anything in the way of visual gimmicks; it’s just well-done film-making that is able to create tension simply out of thin air, through the performances and subject matter.
Of course, the film isn’t without it’s flaws. Nicole Vicius is largely uninteresting as the counter-character to Christopher Denham’s more conflicted Peter. And as far as its insight into the psychology of its other cult members, this film doesn’t really have the nuance that last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene had. Because while the ambiguity of Peter’s conflicting mind works really well, we don’t really get much insight into the other cult members and how they got to get mixed up into everything. Even Martha Marcy May Marlene contained some subtleties that showed how the John Hawkes character was able to manipulate his followers. However, these are all nit-picks in a bigger picture.
Now, it would be improper of me to review this film without mentioning the much-debated ending. When the credits rolled and the ridiculously catchy synth-pop song started playing over the names of the actors flashing on the screen, I initially felt very mixed. I got what the ending meant on a surface level, but was unsure of whether the execution was totally brilliant or mind-numbingly pretentious. It was after some introspection on my part that I realized that the ending leaned more toward the former category, and while it is certainly abrupt, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to end it.
I hate stealing from other reviewers, but critic Matt Singer described the film almost too perfectly when he called it a Rorschach test for the audience. It’s one of those endings that provides for multiple interpretations. My main problem at first was that the clues leaned more toward one reading than the other, but after looking back at many key scenes throughout the film, I saw that there was much more nuance to the movie than what is initially displayed. The ending may not be for everyone, but it’s a bold choice that puts just as much faith in the intelligence of its audience as the cult members put faith on Maggie.
Like I said, this isn’t just a movie about faith. It’s a movie that tests faith.
Final Verdict: Sound Of My Voice works in the same way some of the best Twilight Zone episodes work. It’s a fantastic premise that runs the gamut of intriguing sci-fi ideas and embraces them to their full potential, with excellent performances elevating the material. While the ambiguity may frustrate some viewers; this is still a fascinating, unsettling thriller filled with big ideas, tantalizing mysteries, and (like it or not) an ending that will get you and your buddies arguing over what “the truth” could really be. And that is infinitely more interesting than a conventional ending, flawed or otherwise.
That is all. If you liked this review and would like to read more, you can do so by reading more reviews on this blog as well as following me on the Twitter-machine @Enigma6667 to hear more of my general ramblings on film, video games, and other such things. By following me, you not only get an endless stream of updates on what’s going on with my articles, you get to stroke my massive ego in the process. Do at your own risk.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must gather the donated blood of my Twitter followers. It’s my only source of protein. Bye!