“Somewhere in the valley there’s a woman living in a basement who says she’s from the future and she’s amassing followers.” It is a difficult feat to catch awe and mystery on film without the use of special effects and camera tricks. Sound of My Voice does it with a handshake. Directed by Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay with Brit Marling, Sound of My Voice is a small, art house film that explores big questions in an intimate way. Most of the movie takes place in the basement of an isolated farmhouse outside of Los Angeles and has a documentary feel.
Peter and Lorna are a couple. Peter is a substitute teacher and Lorna is a fledgling writer. They are breaking into the field of investigative journalism and will allow themselves to be put through a lot to chase their first big story. They are blindfolded and brought to see Maggie, a charismatic guru who claims that she comes from the future and appears to be leading her followers toward a dangerous mission. In order to be granted an audience the couple shower and exchange an intricate handshake that looks like it was made up in the hood by a secret society of patty-cake enthusiasts. Once they have passed through their initial screening, they are love bombed by the other members of the small order. We first see Maggie through the eyes of the supplicants. We see her feet and the oxygen tank she wheels behind her. She wears a shroud and thanks everyone for the precautions they have taken. She brings them through her birth into this time even while condescendingly warning them that their minds might not be ready to understand. She is from the future.
Peter is initially belligerent. He came from a cultic background that swallowed his family and he professes to believe that anyone who believes is an empty sucker looking for meaning. Lorna is open to the possibilities of someone visiting from the year 2054. She came from a background of success, excess and addiction. They are both damaged goods. They both need something. Maggie is a master manipulator who is adept at planting suggestions into the minds of the attention-starved pilgrims. The suspense mounts as we see them accept Maggie’s claims as their own beliefs. We empathize when they are removed from the presence of the charismatic woman and are deprived of her loving energy. There are no specters in the corners of the screen. There are no “pop ups.” There is the fear of belief and it becomes tangible in such a commonplace way that we are lulled into expecting peril where there is none.
Alone in the woods, separated from her boyfriend and vulnerable in a completely different way, Lorna gets a lesson in trust and guns from one of Maggie’s acolytes. She appears to have a natural talent for shooting and it makes her happy, but it also opens the possibility that she may need to know how to shoot. Is this a survivalist cult? Peter and Lorna don’t really know where the compound is or how large it is. They’ve been blindly driven back and forth and have only seen what they have been allowed to see. The tests of their trustworthiness get more complicated as the veneer appears to be slipping from Maggie’s façade. Asked to sing a hit from the future, she sings a hit from the past, when asked to name an event to come, she counters by questioning what we remember about the past. If she can make her followers throw up an apple with the power of suggestion, how far is she prepared to take them? And how far are they prepared to go? Peter appears to be prepared to snatch a kid from the school where he works. Peter has hidden behind his journalistic integrity, but he hasn’t shot any footage. He wants faith but is hungry for proof, hungry enough to jeopardize his job and commit a felony for what might be a reverse mother and child reunion and might be something more sinister. What would a cult leader want with a little girl? A federal agent named Carol tells Lorna, but the audience is left to imagine the worst. We are left imagining because even the most revelatory moment of the film reveals nothing. The climax is an anti-climax. We have been promised an answer and get more mystery as Peter is cast as Judas delivering the lamb to slaughter. Such is faith. Nobody wins but the lawyers.
Brit Marling is hypnotic as Maggie, a mesmerizing figure who strips the layers off her followers with charm and a hint of menace. She co-wrote and co-directed the 2004 documentary Boxers and Ballerinas and co-wrote, co-produced and starred in 2011’s Another Earth, which won an Alfred P. Sloan Prize. She played Richard Gere’s daughter in Arbitrage in 2012. Christopher Denham as Peter Aitken and Nicole Vicius as Lorna Michaelson underplay to the documentary feel of the movie at all times. They are consistently restrained and feel ready to be unleashed. There are no histrionics in the movie. When Peter is broken by Maggie it is with a whimper and a little bit of vomit. Denham comes from the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, was in Headspace, Shutter Island and played Mark Lijek in Argo. Nicole Vicius was the voice of the Cartoon Network from 2004 to 2006 and played Nicole on the soap, All My Children. She also played Nicole in Last Days, based on the last days of grunge star Kurt Cobain. When she’s not making movies, she plays Nicole full-time at home. Also in the cast are Davenia McFadden as Carol Briggs; Kandice Stroh as Joanne; Richard Wharton as Klaus; Christy Myers as Mel; Alvin Lam as Lam; Constance Wu as Christine; Matthew Carey as Lyle; Jacob Price as PJ; David Haley as O’Shea and James Urbaniak as Mr. Pritchett. The incidental music by Rostam Batmanglij builds the tension in this low-budget feature and cinematographer Rachel Morrison captures the growing claustrophobia and encroaching emotional seclusion. Sound of My Voice premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was released by Fox Searchlight Pictures on April 27, 2012. It was singled out by IndiWire’s criticWIRE as one of the Top Indie Films at Festivals in 2011 and won the Octopus d’Or best international feature film prize at the at the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival.
Sound of My Voice has the intimate feel of a personal movie made by a student of M. Night Shyamalan films who didn’t stay to the end of class. It builds its thrills though the vague menace of a loving embrace. The guru demands a complete emotional loyalty but isn’t giving out any answers. She offers a nebulous alternative point of view, a Band-Aid for trauma and a Kool-Aid catharsis. The mounting tension leads to an ambiguous non-ending that leaves more questions than answers. It’s not as much a cop out as it is a metaphysical tease that leaves you wanting just a few minutes more. Or I was brainwashed.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars