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 V.21 No.22 | May 31 - June 6, 2012 

Film Review

Sound of My Voice

Psychological sci-fi thriller hypnotizes viewers, leading them into a world of cults and questions

It’s not a cult until somebody breaks out the secret handshake.
It’s not a cult until somebody breaks out the secret handshake.

Sound of My Voice

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Cast: Brit Marling, Christipher Denham, Nicole Vicius

In 2011, fed up with the “cute blonde in horror movie” roles she was being offered, actress Brit Marling turned writer-producer-star for the handcrafted sci-fi film Another Earth. That intriguing (though not entirely fulfilling) drama was enough to mark Marling as an ambitious up-and-comer. With barely a pause, Marling follows it up with her second writing-producing-acting stint, the equally mind-bending indie Sound of My Voice. While the speculative, dialogue-heavy drama might not sit perfectly with all viewers, it proves Marling is a voice and a vision worth paying attention to.

The film begins by dropping us into the lives of Peter and Lorna (working but unknown actors Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius). The young couple appears to be on the verge of entering a religious cult—an experience that’s a degree or two short of kidnapping. Blindfolded, handcuffed and spirited off to a basement God knows where, our protagonists are hoping to get an audience with the cult’s mysterious leader, Maggie (Marling, saving the plum role for herself).

In short order, though, we figure out that Peter and Lorna are wannabe filmmakers, desperate to produce something of serious significance before hitting their 30s. Their hope is to assemble a hidden-camera exposé on Maggie and her worshipful followers. What makes this particular guru such great fodder for an undercover documentary? Maggie claims to be from the future. Having traveled back in time from the year 2054, she holds the secret of catastrophic events that will tear civilization apart. She insists she’s preparing her followers for the trials to come—trials that she’s witnessed firsthand.

Surely, the lady is batty. But she doesn’t look like your typical charlatan. For starters, she’s young and pretty. She’s also quite sickly, sequestering herself inside her hospital-white basement kingdom because she’s allegedly allergic to the environmental toxins of our time. Impossible (at times silly) as her claims are, she spins a compelling narrative. There’s something eerily mesmerizing about the woman. Her skill is in getting inside the heads of her followers, breaking them down psychologically, cleansing them of their emotional wounds and building them back up in her image. In a way, Sound of My Voice is a film about how scary a person can be armed with nothing but words. With a diction that is both soothing and intimidating, Marling commands attention whenever she’s on screen.

As our amateur journalists get deeper and deeper into Maggie’s world and her various “loyalty tests,” Lorna starts to get cold feet. Peter, on the other hand, looks like he’s starting to listen a little too intently to Maggie’s words. In time, the question of “Is she crazy or is she right?” starts to grow moot. The real drama revolves around the human psyche’s need to believe in something, anything. Buy a cheeseburger, vote Republican, join a cult—it all comes down to how attractively the come-on is delivered.

In Another Earth, the budget-minded Marling used a couple of run-down houses and a Photoshopped image of the Earth to create an insular sci-fi universe. Here, the film confines itself largely to Peter and Lorna’s apartment and Maggie’s spartan basement. The look is minimal but highly effective—thanks mostly to gritty lensing from cinematographer Rachel Morrison, whose years on MTV’s “The Hills” obviously gave her a sharp eye for faux reality.

What elevates Sound of My Voice from a simple game of “he said, she said,” though, is the occasional, unexpected narrative aside. Although we see most of the film through the eyes of Peter and Lorna (thankfully not in a fake documentary, “found footage” way), there are moments that take place outside the purview of the main characters. A paranoid woman with a dossier on Maggie checks into a hotel room. A little girl obsessively constructs ominous towers of black Legos in her bedroom. How are these people connected to Maggie? And what effect will they have on the story?

Like Another Earth, Sound of My Voice’s “Twilight Zone”-like narrative leaves a great deal unspoken and unresolved. It’s a much more mature film, however, functioning on many different levels. Marling and first-time director Zal Batmanglij tease a great deal of tension out of the situation and milk a lot of personal drama from their tight cast of characters. This is the kind of film you talk about, think about and analyze afterward, trying to see if you can ferret out one more layer of understanding. If that sounds like too much work to you, this probably isn’t your kind of psycho-thriller-cum-brain-teaser.


Sound of My Voice

Writer-actress Brit Marling follows up her intriguing-if-unsatisfying debut in 2011's Another Earth with this equally mind-bending sci-fi psycho thriller. Here, she plays a charismatic and mysterious cult leader who claims to be from the year 2045. A boyfriend-and-girlfriend duo of wannabe filmmakers infiltrates the cult with the goal of making a documentary exposé on the alleged time traveler. Things get complicated, though, when the male half of the duo starts becoming a convert. The "Twilight Zone"-like narrative leaves a lot unresolved, but ends up as a surprisingly mature puzzler. 85 minutes R. (Opens Friday 6/1)

 

Today's Events

Celebrate the darkest day of the year with a collection of short films, including science fiction, horror and dark fantasy.

Tuesday

Untitled (Just Kidding) at CCA Cinematheque

Thursday

Flix & ChopStix Movies at Center for Contemporary Arts

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