Sound of My Voice (2012)
85 min., rated R.
With its stripped-down, micro-budget approach, "Sound of My Voice" immediately plunges us into the world of a close-knit cult in the San Fernando Valley. Schoolteacher Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) pull their car into a suburban garage that's not theirs and wait for further instructions. From there, a strange man comes out and hands them hospital gowns, which they get into after scrubbing themselves clean in the shower. Blindfolded and hands bound, the couple then gets into a van and is blindly lured into a basement. Peter knows the elaborate secret handshake ritual with Klaus (Richard Wharton), an older, bearded guide for their "unforgettable experience."
Then they meet Maggie (Brit Marling), a frail but angelic-looking blonde woman, hooked up to an oxygen tank, who unveils herself from underneath a white sheet. With a dozen followers surrounding her on the basement floor, she tells them her story of how she woke up in a motel bathtub two years ago and felt alone with no memory, until Klaus took her in. Supposedly, Maggie is allergic to foods that aren't organic and receives blood transfusions. As she claims from her tattoo of an anchor and the number "54" on her ankle, is she really a traveller from 2054? Or is the whole act baloney?
As we soon realize, Peter and Lorna are really journalists out to expose the prophetic Maggie as a con artist for an investigative documentary. These two, both with damaged pasts, are our conduit into the story and this mysterious environment. Though both are skeptical, Peter says "to see her is to believe her" and is willing to keep up their rouse as Maggie's members, but Lorna calls foul on the woo woo and thinks they're way in over their heads. Once Peter gets closer to Maggie, she asks him to bring her someone from his school, which might prove her true identity. The most unsettling sequence comes in the followers' third one-in-the-morning session, where Maggie rewards them all with apples to eat and then says the fruit is full of poisoned logic, forcing them to vomit it up onto a tarp to prove their commitment as true believers. Prior to this, Peter has ingested a transmitter to record everything, so he won't follow suit, but Maggie forces anger out of him, as well as a tragic memory. On the other hand, not helping her claim to be a traveler, she sings a song from the "future" that ends up being The Cranberries' "Dreams" from the '90s.
An alluring, ethereal, and magnetic screen presence, Marling gave such a revelatory, achingly sad performance in her last film, and again here, she's so understatedly convincing and transfixing to watch that it's no wonder her "new members" would be drinking the Kool-Aid. She's the one to watch, but the dogged-cum-obsessed Denham and more-levelheaded Vicius lend gravity to the film with their terrific performances full of raw naturalism.
Making his feature debut and co-writing the script with star Brit Marling, director Zal Batmanglij draws us in from the start, compels throughout, and only grows tenser. An intriguing science fiction concept elegantly executed with a tautness and intimacy, "Sound of My Voice" is just as abstract and ruminative as Marling's last lo-fi effort (2011's haunting "Another Earth") but even more hypnotic. Rachel Morrison's striking DV cinematography and spare, moody score (composed by the director's brother, Rostam Batmanglij) help drape the entire film in a quiet, dreamy atmosphere. The scale is small and the story may be simple, but the filmmakers ask bigger, less simple questions about beliefs and skepticism for the audience to ponder and chew on.
Not only will one be left to question whether Maggie is really a traveller or a con artist, but the film is kept open to interpretation about itself. Does the ambiguous final shot have the merely grandstanding pretensions to leave you dangling, or are you satisfied with sorting it out for yourself? While last year's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" was more of a character study with a cult-versus-reality backdrop, "Sound of My Voice" deeply observes the psychology of a cult but doesn't stop thinking outside of the box to quite come together. A little hand-holding from the filmmakers might have been more satisfying of the conventional sort to take the story to the end, but it never fails to creep under one's skin. From what we've seen of Marling, it'll be exciting to see where her visionary voice takes her next.
Grade: B +